Su Shih Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Su Shih 1036-1101

(Also known as Su Tung-p'o.) Chinese poet and essayist.

Considered one of the greatest of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) poets, Su was a popular and prolific author who composed poetry, essays, satires, art criticism, political, philosophical, and medical treatises, and experimented in the traditional shih and tz'u genres. Many scholars have noted that Su was a supreme master of fu, or prose poetry, and, while his philosophical ideas and theories of landscape continue to interest twentieth-century critics, it is for his simple, lyrical expressions of friendship, the pleasures of drinking, and the pain of loneliness that he remains best known today.

Biographical Information

Su was born in Mei-shan, now Szechwan Province. His father, a civil servant, and his mother, a devout Buddhist whose faith early influenced her son, provided Su with a good education at a private school run by a Taoist priest. In 1056, like most well-educated young men in China at the time, Su took the government civil service exam and passed with distinction. He received a post as a supervisor of public works in 1061, but, always an unconventional and outspoken thinker, made political enemies when he caricatured the verse of some official censors and was exiled to Huang-chou from 1080 to 1084. Around this time, Su began calling himself Tung-p'o chu-shih, or "the Layman of Eastern Slope," a reference to the piece of land he farmed during this period; Su Tung-p'o has traditionally been used as the poet's literary name. Su experienced two more punishments during his government career: he was jailed in 1094 for some critical references to the government, and in 1097 he was banished to the island of Hainan for having spoken disrespectfully to the Emperor. In letters written to friends during this period Su often lamented the transient life he lived as a civil servant and the isolation he experienced while in exile. His contemporaries characterized him as a compassionate, humane official who did what he could to improve the lot of the poor farmers among whom he lived and who cultivated a warm relationship with the citizenry wherever he happened to be. In his official capacity, Su oversaw the building of dams and coordinated famine relief, but he also involved himself in caring for orphans and in the prevention of female infanticide. He also became interested in medicine (there is a book of medicinal recipes ascribed to him and a contemporary, Shen Kua) and developed his considerable skill as a painter and calligrapher. Having been restored to favor in 1000, Su died in 1101.

Major Works

While Su's political writings and philosophical commentaries partake of the Confucian tradition, his poetry exhibits Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian influences, as well as that of earlier Chinese poets, from whom Su borrowed freely. His best-known poems—"The Red Cliff," "The Pavillion of Flying Cranes," "Bending Bamboos of Yun-Tang Valley," "Pine Wine of the Middle Mountains," and "The Pavillion of Glad Rain," for example—are noted for their simple, spontaneous outpouring of emotion, and their emphasis on self-knowledge and unity with nature. These aspects, critics have noted, also typify the classical movement in Chinese literature which was taking place between the eighth and twelfth centuries, and of which Su was one of the leaders. Scholars also credit Su with the revival of the fu genre, which had been neglected for several centuries by Chinese writers. The theme of unity with nature and the striving toward Taoist goals also figures prominently in Su's painting poems, compositions which explicate various paintings in philosophical and poetic terms.

Critical Reception

Of the vast number of poems and essays written by Su, approximately 2,400 survive in authentic texts; scholars are able to date the majority of his writings fairly accurately. Su's works have been extremely popular with readers from his own time onward, and, while they were banned right after his death because of his unorthodox political views, they were circulated widely and eventually restored to favor. Twentieth-century critics have continued to explore various aspects of Su's writings—for example, the imagery and poetic voice in his verse writings, his theory of art as expressed through his landscape and painting poems, and his views on his contemporaries and his society as seen in his prose works. Most scholars still agree with Herbert A. Giles's assessment of Su: "Under his hands, the language of which China is so proud may be said to have reached perfection of finish, of art concealed. [In] subtlety of reasoning, in the lucid expression of abstractions, such as in English too often eludes the faculty of the tongue, Su Tung P'o is an unrivalled master."