Su Shi - One of Chinese Greatest Genius
Su Shi (苏轼) (January 8, 1037 – August 24, 1101) was a writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman of the Song Dynasty, and one of the major poets of the Song era. His courtesy name was Zizhan (子瞻) and his pseudonym was Dongpo Jushi (东坡居士 “Dongpo Householder”), and he is often referred to as Su Dongpo (苏东坡). Besides his renowned poetry, his other existent writings are of great value in the understanding of 11th century Chinese travel literature as well as details of the 11th century Chinese iron industry.
Su Shi was born in Meishan, near Mount Emei in what is now Sichuan province. His brother Su Zhe (苏辙) and his father Su Xun (苏洵) were both famous literati. Su's early education was conducted under a Taoist priest at a local village school. Later in his childhood, he studied under his mother, herself a highly educated woman. Su married at age 17. In 1057, when Su was 19, he and his brother passed the (highest-level) civil service examinations to attain the degree of jinshi, a prerequisite for high government office. His accomplishments at such a young age attracted the attention of Ouyang Xiu, who became Su's patron thereafter. Ouyang had already been known as an admirer of Su Xun, sanctioning his literary style at court and stating that no other pleased him more. When the 1057 jinshi examinations were given, Ouyang Xiu required—without prior notice—that candidates were to write in the ancient prose style when answering questions on the Confucian classics. The Su brothers gained high honors for what was deemed impeccable answers and achieved celebrity status.
Beginning in 1060 and throughout the following twenty years, Su held a variety of government positions throughout China; most notably in Hangzhou, where he was responsible for constructing a pedestrian causeway across the West Lake that still bears his name: sudi (苏堤). He had served as a magistrate in Mizhou, which is located in modern day Zhucheng County of Shandong province. Later, when he was governor of Xuzhou, he once wrote a memorial to the throne in 1078 complaining about the troubling economic conditions and potential for armed rebellion in Liguo Industrial Prefecture, where a large part of the Chinese iron industry was located.
Su Shi was often at odds with a political faction headed by Wang Anshi. Su Shi once wrote a poem criticizing Wang Anshi's reforms, especially the government monopoly imposed on the salt industry. The dominance of the reformist faction at court allowed the New Policy Group greater ability to have Su Shi exiled for political crimes. The claim was that Su was criticizing the emperor, when in fact Su Shi's poetry was aimed at criticizing Wang's reforms. It should be said that Wang Anshi played no part in this actions against Su, for he had retired from public life in 1076 and established a cordial relationship with Su Shi. Su Shi's first remote trip of exile (1080–1086) was to Huangzhou, Hubei. This post carried a nominal title, but no stipend, leaving Su in poverty. During this period, he began Buddhist meditation. With help from a friend, Su built a small residence on a parcel of land in 1081. Su Shi lived at a farm called Dongpo ('Eastern Slope'), from which he took his literary pseudonym. While banished to Hubei province, he grew fond of the area he lived in; many of the poems considered his best were written in this period. His most famous piece of calligraphy, Han Shi Tie, was also written there. In 1086, Su and all other banished statesmen were recalled to the capital due to the ascension of a new government. However, Su was banished a second time (1094–1100) to Huizhou (now in Guangdong province) and Hainan island. In 1098 the Dongpo Academy in Hainan was built on the site of his residence that was established while in exile.
Although political bickering and opposition usually split ministers of court into rivaling groups, there were moments of non-partisanship and cooperation from both sides. For example, although the prominent scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031-1095) was one of Wang Anshi's most trusted associates and political allies, Shen nonetheless befriended Su Shi and even collaborated with him in compiling the pharmaceutical treatise of the Liang Fang (良方; Good medicinal formulas). It should be noted, however, that Su Shi was aware that it was Shen Kuo who, as regional inspector of Zhejiang, presented Su Shi's poetry to the court sometime between 1073 to 1075 with concern that it expressed abusive and hateful sentiments against the Song court. It was these poetry pieces that Li Ding and Shu Dan later utilized in order to instigate a law case against Su Shi, although until that point Su Shi did not think much of Shen Kuo's actions in bringing the poetry to light.
Su Shi had several children, the eldest being Su Mai (苏迈), who would also become a government official by 1084. After Su Shi's wife had died, he wrote this poem in her memory, entitled Jiang zhenzi:
"Ten years living and dead have drawn apart
After a long period of political exile, Su received a pardon in 1100 and was posted to Chengdu. However, he died in Changzhou, Jiangsu province after his period of exile and while he was en route to his new assignment in the year 1101. Su Shi was 64 years old. After his death he gained even greater popularity, as people sought to collect his calligraphy, paintings depicting him, stone inscriptions marking his visit to numerous places, and built shrines in his honor. He was also depicted in artwork made posthumously, such as in Li Song's (1190-1225) painting of Su traveling in a boat, known as Su Dongpo at Red Cliff, after Su Song's poem written about a 3rd century Chinese battle.
As a great litterateur, calligrapher and painter of the Northern Song Dynasty of China, Su Shi is commonly called Su Dongpo by latter people due to his pseudonym Dongpo Jushi (Resident of Dongpo).
Though of great learning and talent, he did not have a very smooth official career. He lived as official in Beijing for a short time, and, then, was appointed to be a local official of other regions like Hangzhou, Huangzhou and Huzhou. Political frustrations he encountered spurred his passion for literary creation. As a literary chief of the Northern Song Dynasty following Ouyang Xiu, he performed a profound effect on the development of Chinese literature at that time and latterly.
Su Shi emphasized originality, expressive force and artistic value of the literature. His essays are unstrained and passionate. He, together with the other great litterateur, Ouyang Xiu, was titled “Shu’ou”. His poems, with bold, generous, and romantic characteristics, covered a wide range. Today, there are more than 4000 of his poems preserved. The bold and unstrained style, which was developed by him and which was as famous as the graceful and restrained style, extended the theme which formerly focused almost on the sentimental feelings. For example, Meditation on the Past at the Red Cliff is one of his famous works existing in the world.
Su Shi was also versed at calligraphy. His style of calligraphy was changeful, artless and immense. He, together with Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang, was titled “Four calligraphers of the Song Dynasty”. In terms of Painting, Su Shi was good at ink bamboos, ancient trees and wonderful stones. His paintings were in a concise, strong style of drawing. And, usually, some wonderful ideas would come in your mind when you are appreciating his works. In addition, Su Shi’s theory on painting was also profoundly influential to later generations. The idea of “Paintings by scholars” developed by him established an academic base for the latter development of “Literati Painting”.