Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (essay date 1931)
SOURCE: An introduction to Selections from the Works of Su Tung-p'o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, Jonathan Cape, 1931, pp. 23-33.
[Clark is a scholar and translator of Chinese literature. Here, he describes the general tenor of Su's works, emphasizing that "permeating his writings is an unmistakable sympathy with his fellow beings, an understanding of their lives, a compassion for their troubles."]
It has been said that Su Shih revived 'the plain speaking of the satirical odes.' Certain it is that as a satirist who never hesitated to censure or ridicule when he considered either necessary, Tung-p'o stands out most prominently amongst his contemporaries. A brilliant essayist and poet, he—like Ou-yang Hsiu—is regarded as an almost universal genius, but is even a greater favourite with the Chinese literary public. To quote Dr. H. A. Giles in his Gems of Chinese Literature, '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 elude the faculty of the tongue, Su Tung-p'o is an unrivalled master.'
His writings were voluminous, and numerous editions of his complete works, under the title of Tung-p'o Ch 'üan Chi, have been published from the time of the Sung dynasty down to the present day. These works covered a great variety of subjects and were produced in many different styles, including letters, essays, records, memorials, epitaphs, prose-poems and verse.
A study of this literature gives the reader an insight into not only the times in which the author lived but also the character and temperament of the man himself. His extreme outspokenness, for instance, was continually getting him into trouble with the Throne, resulting in a series of banishments and dismissals from the posts he held, a process which continued intermittently throughout his life. Commencing with his opposition to Wang An-shih, the Innovator, and the poet's departure from the Capital to a subordinate post at Hangchow, he, shortly afterwards, lampooned in verse two of the Court Censors and, in 1072, was dismissed to Huangchow. Seven years later, on being transferred to Huchow, he presented a memorial returning thanks for this appointment. A Censor discovered allusions derogatory to the Government and Tung-p'o was thrown into prison. After several years of changing fortune during which he was summoned to return to Court, he was obliged once more to go into the provinces and, in 1094, was accused of having spoken disrespectfully of the late Emperor, and banished, first to Huichow in Kuangtung, and afterwards to the island of Hainan.
His experiences, however, had taught him in later life to be more careful in his political references, and we find few of them in his writings during his last years. Here and there occurs a vague allusion, but he appears rather to warn his friends against making similar mistakes. In a letter to his grand-nephew, Yüan Lao, he counsels him to be on his guard in all things while in the metropolis. He concludes his letter with the words—'And now, above all things be circumspect.' In another letter to the same relative he writes, 'I assure you I am anxious to compose the Epitaph and have no thought of drawing back, but, of late, anxieties and fears have crowded upon me thicker than ever. I can set about nothing nowadays without taking all sorts of precautions—eating, drinking, or talking, it is all the same. I fancy you will divine my meaning.'
Wherever he went and whatever post he held, Tung-p'o seemed to leave his mark in some practical manner, generally by digging wells. A train of wells marked his wanderings over the Empire, and he records in his writings his experiences in this line, notably in Ch'ien T'ang, in Chekiang and in Kiungchow in Hainan. In this latter place he found two springs to the north-east of the city, a few feet apart, but with waters of different taste. We are credibly informed that the Chinese profess great faith in the quality of this well, known as Tung-p'o's Double Spring, 'nor is their belief much shaken by the fact that foreign analysis is in favour of a rival well.' He added largely to the architectural beauties of Hangchow; at Yinchow he carried on successfully the work of famine relief, and the Yellow River benefited by his engineering skill.
Many of his essays and poems contain passages of great beauty, such as The Red Cliff, and The Pavillon of Flying Cranes. To read, for instance, the 'Song of the Cranes' in the original Chinese is a delight which only the sublime poetry of the Immortals can bring to one. Again, his powers of imagination are manifested in such lines as his description of Ts'ao Ts'ao's fleet sailing down towards the Red Cliff; the raging typhoon; Wang Hsün marching upon K'un Yang. Or his description of that night under the Stonebell Hill, when, accompanied by his son, Mai, he took a boat to investigate the uncanny sounds which came from its foot. 'The mighty rock rose to a height of a thousand feet, like an infuriate beast or strange monster about to pounce upon us. Falcons, perched upon the hills, rose in screaming fright to the clouds on hearing the sounds of men.
'There were noises too, like an old man coughing and cackling, in the gulleys of the hill—'
We find, too, passages of extreme tenderness, showing how deeply he felt the loss of a friend. His references to Wên Yü-k'o in the Bending Bamboos of Yün-Tang Valley are most touching in their sorrow, as for instance when he tells how, while drying his books and pictures, he...
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