Skip to content

Cold Food Observance by Su Shi

    Cold Food Observance by Su Shi is one of the greatest works of calligraphy in Chinese history.

    Like some – but not all – Chinese calligraphy masterpieces, it combines great style (written characters) with original content (poetry).

    Let’s look closer at both of these aspects.

    Who was Su Dongpo?

    Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) was a Song dynasty government official, calligrapher, poet, essayist and more.

    Throughout the centuries, Su has been considered one of the most erudite and multi-talented figures in Chinese art and literature.

    What is the Cold Food Observance?

    Cold Food Observance by Su Dongpo
    Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 34.2 X 118cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Poems Written at Huangzhou on the Cold Food Festival (黄州寒食诗帖) (sometimes simply translated as Cold Food Observance) is a masterpiece of calligraphy written by Su Dongpo 1082. 

    It is a piece written in running script, which a slightly cursive version of the regular script of Chinese calligraphy. And it is made up of two poems written in 5-character lines.

    Additions and corrections to the piece suggest that it could be a draft. If true, this is something it has in common with the second of the three great running script masterpieces, Yan Zhenqing’s Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (958 AD).

    Place in Chinese calligraphy’s history

    Su’s Cold Food Observance is considered to be one of the three running script (行书 [xíngshū]) masterpieces. This style is also sometimes translated as ‘semi-cursive’. 

    The other two are:

    The piece is also perhaps Su’s most famous work. This is both because of its style and how well it encapsulates a crucial point in Su’s career as an official.

    Background to the Cold Food Observance

    Su wrote it during his first internal exile in Huangzhou, Hubei.

    He had been sent there as punishment for his criticism of the reforms of the government official Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD).

    At the time, Su was – despite his gregarious and optimistic personality – was clearly feeling down.

    He was in political trouble. And his actions would have impacted his family, friends and political allies, too.

    In the Cold Food Observance, he laments his situation in Huangzhou. The conditions are tough and he regrets that he won’t be able to visit his ancestors’ tombs for the upcoming Qingming Festival.

    The Cold Food Observance Festival

    ‘Cold Food Observance’ (or ‘Cold Food Festival‘) is the name of a traditional Chinese holiday.

    It takes place for three days during spring, shortly before the Qingming (or Tomb-Sweeping) Festival, which is when people visit their ancestor’s tombs. The Qingming Festival is also mentioned in Su’s piece.

    Since the end of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD), the Cold Food Observance has ceased to be a popular and widely celebrated festival. However, the Qingming Festival is still widely celebrated in Chinese culture today.

    Su Dongpo’s artistic philosophy

    Su and his circle of official-scholars frequently discussed art theory.

    They frequently discussed particular artistic principles. One example includes a focus on the artist’s character and qi (‘life force’ or ‘vitality’) over his technique. 

    Calligraphy and paintings, like poetry, were more interesting to Su if they reflected the artists’ internal cultivation.

    Unusually even for a literati scholar, Su even extended this notion to how he held the calligraphy brush.

    Many calligraphers and painters focused on the correct brush-holding form. Not Su – he felt simply holding the brush as one wanted was more likely to make the resulting work authentic.

    Where is the original version of the Cold Food Observance today?

    During the Chinese Civil War (1945 – 1949), the original version of the Cold Food Observance was moved by the Nationalists from Beijing to Taiwan.

    Today, it is housed in the Taipei Palace Museum.

    Chinese (simplified) and English text of the Cold Food Observance

    Below is the original Chinese version of the text for the Cold Food Observance, and an English translation of it.

    The characters printed here are simplified characters, which are slightly different to the traditional characters used in the original art piece.

    The theme and the subject matter are clearly interconnected. After all, Su chose to write them in the same style on the same scroll.

    However, there is a gap between the last character (白) of the first poem, and the first character of the second (春). The second poem also begins in the traditional place a new line would begin. (There was no punctuation in classical Chinese).

    First poem


    Since I’ve been in Huangzhou, three Cold Food Festivals have already passed. 
    Each year I regret spring’s decline, but spring’s rays are indifferent. 

    This year has brought endless spring rains, two months of consecutive autumn-like cold. Lying down, listening to the rain hit the crabapple tree, its fallen petals scattered like snow in the mud. 

    The tree was quietly stolen, midnight is really powerful. What’s the difference between this and a youth
    [implying Su himself] who has recovered from an illness only to find it has turned their hair white?

    Second poem


    The spring river has risen and entered people’s homes. The rain shows no sign of stopping. Small homes are like little fishing boats floating on the vast misty waters. 

    The kitchen is empty, there is only boiled vegetables, cooked on the broken stove heated with wet reeds. I don’t know what day it is, but I see crows bearing ritual paper money [burned as an offering to the dead] and think it must be Cold Food Festival. 

    I would like to return to the royal court. But there’s no way to get back through the palace’s nine gates, it’s too far. And my ancestral tombs are so far away, I can’t get back to sacrifice at them [for the coming Tomb Sweeping festival].

    I want to cry bitterly, like Ruan Jizuo, but my heart feels deadened and I don’t want to rekindle it.

    Chinese (traditional) characters side by side with calligraphy

    Printed traditional Chinese characters of Cold Food Observance by Su Dongpo besides picture of original
    Cold Food Observance with traditional Chinese characters