Su Shih Criticism - Essay

Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (essay date 1931)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2367 words.)

Ch'ien Chung-shu (essay date 1935)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-P'o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1935. Reprint by Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964, xiii-xxii.

[Ch'ien Chung-shu is one of China's most distinguished literary figures. A professor of English and Chinese at Kwang Hua University in Shanghai, he is the author of numerous essays, a significant body of literary criticism, and several short stories. He is probably best known for his novel Wei Cheng (1947; Fortress Besieged, 1979), a satire regarded as one of the greatest Chinese literary works of the twentieth century. Below, he comments on Su's prose poems and adds that "the interest of Su Tung-p'o for us lies in the...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (essay date 1935)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-P ' o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1935. Reprint by Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964, pp. 3-52.

[In the following essay, Clark explores the elements of Su's philosophy of art, contending that he combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism into one unified vision of life and art.]

Outside his own country Su Tung-p'o is, perhaps, best known as a satirist whose writings were continually getting him into trouble. Chinese commentators do not agree with this interpretation of Su's writings, and it is probable that satire is the exception, rather than the rule, in the poet's intention. When he...

(The entire section is 5438 words.)

Burton Watson (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Su Tung-P'o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. 3-16.

[Watson is a scholar and translator of Chinese and Japanese literature whose numerous publications include Early Chinese Literature (1962) and Great Historical Figures of Japan (1978). Here, he presents an overview of Su 's life and works, touching on his style and the Buddhist and Taoist influences in his poetry.]

Culturally, the Sung period was one of the great ages of Chinese history. The dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279, faced powerful enemies abroad: the Liao, a Khitan state in the northeast; a...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

Andrew L. March (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Self and Landscape in Su Shih," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 86, 1966, pp. 377-96.

[March is a professor of geology, anthropology, and China humanities who has written many journal articles and The Idea of China: Myth and Theory in Geographic Thought (1974). In the following excerpt, he explores the connection between Su's concept of art, his understanding of landscape, and his striving to perfect himself according to the principles of the Tao.]

Su Shih's Fertile and energetic mind was more poetic than discursive, and the weight of his ideas is often carried by images appealing to experience rather than by rational argument. Landscape...

(The entire section is 14716 words.)

Kojiro Yoshikawa (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Late Period of the Northern Sung—1050-1100," in An Introduction to Sung Poetry, translated by Burton Watson, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 85-133.

[In the following excerpt, Yoshikawa presents a detailed discussion about the manner in which Su was able to "transcend sorrow by means of a philosophy that viewed the infinite variety of human life with a largeness of vision that was equally varied.]

Su Tung-p'o's poetic works, in which he gives free and unrestrained expression to his rich and varied talent, are unmatched in stature by anything else in Sung poetry. First of all, he took over the interest in description that was already...

(The entire section is 7021 words.)

Yu-Shih Chen (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Su Shih: A Theory of Perception in Art," in Images and Ideas in Chinese Classical Prose: Studies of Four Masters, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 133-53.

[Here, Yu-Shih Chen explores Su's intellectual and artistic development during the period of 1071 to 1085, characterizing him as an intuitive and unorthodox thinker.]

Su Shih (1036-1101) was 30 years younger than his patron Ou-yang Hsiu, and so their careers and thoughts were not … closely intertwined.… Politically, Su Shih, like Ou-yang Hsiu in his later years, was part of the conservative opposition to the New Law Reform. In literary theory, they are frequently mentioned together in the context of...

(The entire section is 6860 words.)