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Su Shi: Song Dynasty Renaissance Man

    Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) (pronounced ‘sue shrrr‘; also known as Su Dongpo) is one of Chinese history’s greatest literary and intellectual figures.

    He stood out as a great artist and polymath during an era of flourishing culture and learning.

    He even popularised a form of headwear and created a cuisine still popular today (Dongpo pork)…

    And as an official, he experienced great power, poverty, torture, and exile.

    But throughout his life, one trait was consistent: brilliance in whatever he turned his mind to.

    Su’s life during the Renzong Emperor’s reign (1022 – 1063 AD)

    Portrait of Seated Renzong Emperor
    Portrait of Seated Renzong Emperor (Song dynasty) by unknown artist, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.5 x 128.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    宋兴七十馀年,民不知兵,富而教之 […]
    The Song dynasty has flourished for over 70 years without the people knowing war, and with them enjoying affluence and education […]

    – Su Shi, ‘Preface to The Complete Works of Ouyang Xiu’ (1091)

    Su lived during the first half of the Song dynasty, which later on became known as the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD) period. 

    (This is to distinguish it from the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1379 AD), which is when the northern half of the empire was lost to the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD)).

    The Song dynasty in general, and the Northern Song dynasty in particular, was and is recognised for its political and cultural achievements. 

    It was famously more focused on administrative rather than military matters.

    However, by the time Su was born, cracks were beginning to show. The government’s budget was not balanced.

    Reformist officials began to call for reforms to the military, administration, education, taxes, and more. Conservatives countered that going back to a purer form of Confucianism would solve existing issues.

    Ultimately, the Emperor Rezong only dabbled with implementing (and then rescinding) some suggested reforms. 

    When Renzong passed away in 1063, the issues remained, as did the calls for reform. These matters would go on to define Su Shi’s life and career.

    Su’s early life

    Harmonizing with a Poem by Qin Guan (1079 AD) by Su Shi, ink on paper, running script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image source:  National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Su Shi (苏轼 [Sū Shì]), courtesy name Zichan, was born near the city of Meishan in Sichuan Province.

    His father, Sun Xun (1009 – 1066 AD), was initially silk merchant and scholar who wanted to become an official. But he failed the imperial exams (one of the most popular routes to a career in government) three times.

    In frustration, he burned his practice essays and did not consider an official career for a decade.

    However, he ensured that his two sons, Su Shi and his younger brother Su Zhe (1039 – 1112 AD), were well-prepared for the exams.

    c.1041 – 1055: The Su brothers’ early education

    The two Su brothers’ spent years studying the Chinese classics, a necessary prerequisite for the imperial examinations. At least part of this study was led by their mother. 

    Their learning included:

    • The Analects of Confucius
    • Mencius
    • The Great Learning
    • Maintaining Perfect Balance
    • Two chapters of the Book of Rites

    And at aged 17, Su married his first wife, Wang Fu.

    1056 -1057: The Three Sus visit the capital

    In 1056, when Su Shi was 19, he went with his father and brother to the Song dynasty’s capital Kaifeng.

    Here, the brothers had great success with the exam. Su placed first of all candidates nationally, and his brother was not far behind.

    Meanwhile, their father had gained a government position based on merit (not exams). He did this by impressing the great Song dynasty scholar-official Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD) and others with his original essays.

    Unfortunately, Su’s mother passed away the same year. Just as their renown reached new heights, the three Su’s returned home to Meishan for a four-year period of mourning.

    ‘The Three Sus’ and ‘Eight Great Pose Masters’

    Su Shi, his brother, and father are often collectively referred to as ‘The Three Sus’ (三苏 [Sān Sū]). This name is used to emphasise their shared talents and influence.

    They are also considered three of the ‘Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song dynasties (唐宋八大家 [Táng Sòng Bā Dàjiā]), along with: 

    • Han Yu (768 – 824 AD)
    • Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819 AD)
    • Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD)
    • Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD)
    • Zeng Gong (1019 – 1083)

    1061 – 1062: Su Shi’s higher examination essays

    After acing the national exam, Su was invited to take part in a special decree exam to further assess his potential.

    The exam essays he wrote for this further displayed his great literary skill and original thinking. In total there were 50 essays on the following subjects: 

    • Famous historical figures (20 essays)
    • Governance of the people (6 essays)
    • Staffing bureaucracies (6 essays)
    • Principles of government (5 essays)
    • Maintaining Perfect Balance (a Confucian classic) (3 essays)
    • Military preparation (3 essays)
    • Military strategy and border relations (3 essays)
    • High-ranking ministerial positions (2 essays)
    • Trade and finance (2 essays)

    Ouyang Xiu remarked that Su’s exam essays showed he would ‘surely lead the literary world one day.’

    Hints of his future approach to politics and criticisms of policies can be found in them:

    If people dominate policies, policies become empty vessels. If policies dominate people, people become mere fillers of positions. But if both work together harmoniously, the empire will be at peace.
       Today, from lowly positions all the way up to the prime minister, all officials think that upholding policies equates to fulfilling their duties.

    Trusting in the policies, they fold their arms and say: “How can I be free to act independently?

    – Su Shi (应制举上两制书)

    The Yingzong Emperor’s reign (1063 – 1067 AD)

    Portrait of Yinzong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Yinzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 199.7 x 155.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Emperor Renzong died without a direct heir in 1063. The throne then passed to his first cousin, Yingzong.

    Yinzong died aged 34, after a four-year reign. Throughout this time, he was often distracted with physical and mental illness.  

    Under him, not much changed, including the dynasty’s problems…

    1063 – 66: Notary in Fengxiang, passing of Su Xun

    Su’s first official post was as a notary in Fengxiang (in today’s Baoji city, Shaanxi Province).

    His first wife passed away in 1065 and father passed away in Kaifeng 1066. 

    Su and his brother accompanied their father’s coffin for approximately 925 miles (1,428km) from Kaifeng to Meishan. 

    Their official mourning period lasted for around three years. During this time, he married his second wife, Wang Runzhi.

    The Shenzong reign (r. 1067 – 1085 AD)

    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 176.4 x 144.4 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Shenzong emperor was the eldest son of Yinzong. He came to the throne shortly after the Su brothers returned to the empire’s capital to take up official roles. 

    Shenzong wanted to reform the dynasties’ economy and military. 

    To achieve these goals, he appointed the reformist-minded official Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD), who was recommended by his tutor.

    Wang had previously suggested a radical set of reforms back in 1058 AD, in the famous ‘Ten Thousand Word Memorial’ (上万言书 [Shàngwàn Yánshū]). 

    However, at the time, Shenzong’s uncle (the ruling Renzong Emperor) had not implemented these.

    The New Policies

    Now, Shenzong decided to implement what his uncle hadn’t implemented. These reforms soon became known as the New Policies (新法 [Xīnfǎ]).

    They touched on almost every aspect of Song society, including education, farming, taxation, and more.

    Wang’s appointment and mandate to make such sweeping reforms was unusual.

    About a century later, the intellectual Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD) wrote that it was something ‘that comes only once in a thousand years.’

    1069 – 1070: Return to Kaifeng

    Su (and many others) spoke out against the New Policies. 

    He argued (amongst other things) that the people were against the polices, which would change their lives in many ways. 

    In some ways, this reflected what he had argued in his exams. In others, it was slightly hypocritical. After all, he had strongly argued that serious reforms were needed…

    者物论沸腾,怨讟交至,公议所在,亦可知矣,而相顾不发,中外失望 […] 何事不生?
    Today opinion everywhere is in tumult. Anger and outrage are everywhere. Public opinion is clear. And yet [officials] look at each other and say nothing, which disappoints everyone in the capital and in the provinces […] What disaster will follow?

    – Su Shi (上神宗皇帝书)

    Su and his fellow opposition officials (often referred to as the conservatives) continued to criticise the New Policies throughout the next decade. 

    This eventually would have bad consequences for most of them.

    1071 – 1079: Governor in the provinces

    In the 1070s, Su spent time working as an official in the following places: 

    • 1071 – 1073: Hangzhou (in today’s Zhejiang Province)
    • 1074 – 1076: Mizhou (today’s Zhucheng, Shandong Province)
    • 1077 – 1079: Xuzhou (in today’s Jiangsu Province)
    • 1079 (for 3 months): Huzhou (in today’s Zhejiang Province)

    During this time, Su proved himself to be a capable and compassionate official.

    The Yellow Tower in Huzhou

    For example, he was commended by the emperor for camping out on a wall in Huzhou as it was fortified during a flood.

    He then repeatedly petitioned the government for funds to build a new wall for the same purpose.

    His petition was eventually successful and able to hire seven thousand labourers to complete the task (complete with a tower – Yellow Tower).

    During this period, that his reputation as a great poet also grew. He wrote poems on many different topics, including the wall at Huzhou:

    […] 人事固多乖。
    Vast fields sit beside the clear river 
    where I built the Yellow Tower.
    The autumn moon overlooks the city wall, 
    a spring breeze sends ripples across the wine in the cup […]
    So contrary are human affairs! 
    One day, white-haired and tired of your travels, 
    you’ll sing ‘The Return’ and climb this tower.
    Letting out a long sigh, you’ll wonder:
    ‘Where is the prefect [Su Shi] now?’

    – Su Shi, ‘Seeing Off Revenue Officer Zheng’

    Continued criticism of the New Policies

    Su also liked to write and send friends poems mocking the New Policies.

    Many – including his brother and fellow poet, official and calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD) – pleaded with him to stop.

    Huang wrote to his nephew:

    Su’s writing is the best in the world. His only shortcoming is that he likes to rebuke people – in this, you must not follow his example!

    – Huang Tingjian

    Unfortunately, Su could not help himself.

    1079: Arrest and trial

    Arrest and imprisonment

    Su was recalled to Kaifeng in 1079. Here he was arrested and charged with slander against the court and the emperor. 

    He was escorted under armed guard to jail in Shanqiu, Henan Province.

    Along the way, his possessions were searched and about 80 percent of his manuscripts destroyed.

    I said goodbye to my wife and children. I left a letter for my brother, Su Zhe. It contained instructions on handling my posthumous affairs, because I was certain I would die. As we crossed the Yangzi River, I wanted to throw myself into it. But it was impossible to do so with the guards so close to me. When I was in prison, I intended to starve myself to death.

    – Su Shi

    Su was in jail for 4 months.

    Was Su tortured in jail?

    Contemporary reports from fellow prisoners suggest Su was likely physically tortured during interrogations. 

    The emperor had instructed jailers not to be particularly cruel to him, but this does not mean he was completely spared.

    The anguish of an impending execution no doubt weighed heavily on him, too.

    The Crow Terrace Poetry Case

    By nature, I am careless with words. When I write to someone, whether or not he is a close friend, I always express my innermost feelings. If I leave anything unsaid, it is just like a morsel of food stuck in my throat. I must spit it out before I can rest.

    – Su Shi 

    Su’s trial took place in 1079. It later became known as the Crow Terrace Poetry Case (乌台诗案 [Wū Tái Shī Àn]) after a compilation by that name compiled a century later (at least in part by one Peng Jiuwan).

    During the trial, Su’s recent poetry was used as evidence against him. For example, lines written in one of his poems to a friend read:

    Benevolence and justice are convenient shortcuts;
    The Songs and Documents are roadside inns.
    They pat one another on the back, tassels flapping,
    Whilst still chanting, ‘The wheat is green!’
    A rotting rat – why bother to shoe anyone off? […]

    – Su Shi

    In Song dynasty court cases, the defendant’s confession was essential to proceedings. In Su’s, he explained:

    This poem criticises the men whom the Court has recently promoted and employed […] They avail themselves of the Confucian classics to advance and resemble the scholars who Zhuangzi said use passages in the Songs and Documents to justify robbing graves. That is why I referred to “the Wheat is Green”. The poem also implies that they these unscrupulous men are as attached to their official salary as the owl [in Zhuangzi] was to the rotting rat, when it needlessly shooed the wild goose away.

    – Su Shi, quoted in Egan, Ronald C., Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 45

    Su’s associates also punished

    One of those caught with such poetry, and charged with not having reported it to the court, was Huang Tingjian. He was sent to work in a remote region, a form of exile for officials.

    Fortunately, Su was spared the death penalty. In many other ages, he would perhaps not have been so lucky.

    This perhaps says something about the Confucian nature of the Song dynasty’s rulers.

    季康子问政于孔子曰:如杀无道,以就有道,何如?” 孔子对曰:子为政,焉用杀?子欲善而民善矣。
    Lord Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. “If I killed the bad to help the good, would that be good?” Confucius replied: “You are here to govern, why kill?”

    – The Analects (12.19)

    1080 – 1084: First exile (Huangzhou and then Dengzhou)

    Huangzhou (not to be confused with Hangzhou) lies approximately 300 miles (482km) south of Kaifeng.

    It was a remote posting for Su, and one which he did not receive a salary for or any sense of how long it would last.

    He moved to a farm called Dongpo (meaning ‘eastern slope’) in Huangzhou and began referring to himself as Su Dongpo.

    Inspired by the great poet Tao Yuanming (365 – 427 AD) (also known as Tao Qian), he began to write poems on rural themes.

    He also built a studio for himself, which he named Snow Hall. Inside, he covered the walls with paintings of snow and would often diligently try to meditate.

    His mood in these years seems to have alternated between high-spirited and dejected.

    During this period, he developed greatly as a calligrapher. He wrote his solemn (and almost despairing) calligraphic masterpieceCold Festival Observance.

    He did not write explicitly political work during this period. However, he did occasionally make dangerous references to politics in his poetry. 


    When a son is born, everyone hopes he will be intelligent.
    I, through intelligence, have wrecked my whole life.
    Just hope the baby will prove ignorant and stupid,
    Then he will lead a tranquil life as a cabinet minister.

    – Su Shi, ‘Playfully Written After Washing My Son’ (1083) 

    The Zhezong Emperor’s reign (1085 – 1100 AD)

    Portrait of Zhezong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Zhezong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 179.7 x 144.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    In 1085, the emperor Shenzong died aged 36 – only two years older than his father had reached.

    The next in line for the throne was the 8-year-old Zhezong (r. 1085 – 1100 AD).

    Zhezong’s young age meant that the Empress Dowager ran things for now. She halted the reforms and called an amnesty on officials who had opposed them.

    The same year, Su was appointed prefect of the coastal city of Dengzhou (today’s Penglai, Shangdong Province). Just five days later, he was recalled to the capital.

    1086 – 1094: Kaifeng, Hangzhou, Yingzhou, Yangzhou and Dengzhou

    Su worked as an academician to the Hanlin Academy between 1086 – 1088 and then again in 1091. This was a distinguished government role that Ouyang Xiu had previously worked in, too. 

    It involved overseeing interpretations of the classics. This aided the assessment of the civil service exams.

    In between his two stints in this role, he also served as the prefect of Hangzhou again. And afterwards, as prefect of Yingzhou, Yangzhou, and Dengzhou.

    During this time, Su again displayed his abilities as a highly capable official that genuinely cared about the people. This has influenced his reputation up until today.

    These were productive years for Su, in which he demonstrated repeatedly his intelligent planning, moral uprightness as an official, and concern for citizens.

    1090: An amusing exam candidate incident

    A glimpse into Su’s style of working and personality comes from this period in his life.

    In 1090, when Su was the prefect of Hangzhou, a young exam candidate name Wu Weidao was brought before him. 

    The candidate had been arrested with trunks of silk that had Su’s name and Kaifeng address written on them.

    The student explained that the silk was donated to him by people in his home village in Fujian. It was to be used for his expenses on the long journey to take the exam in the capital. 

    Hoping to scare off thieves, the candidate had added Su’s famous name. But he had not realised he was passing through the location of Su’s latest posting.

    Su was highly amused by this story and sent the young candidate on his way with authentic papers for protecting his silk. 

    The candidate went on to pass the exam. One year later, he and Su reunited and drank together.

    Su’s second wife passes away

    Misfortune befell Su again when his second wife, Wang Runzhi, died in 1193.

    His concubine, Wang Zhaoyun, appears to have taken on the role of his wife afterwards. 

    She is said to have been a bright and witty individual who had taught herself how to read.

    The Su Causeway (or Su Dike) on the West Lake

    The Su Causeway (苏提 [Sūdī]) (sometimes translated as Su Dike) is a 1.7-mile (2.8 km)  raised track of land that crosses Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. 

    Before it was built, Su noted that the freshwater West Lake was not being maintained well and – as a result – shrinking. 

    The lake’s decline, Su argued in his petitions, would cause nearby canals to become unusable, wells to disappear, tax from alcohol brewers to fall, and more.

    Su proposed and led this project, which used 100,000 labourers to complete. 

    It involved dredging the lake to clear it of weeds as well as moving soil to create the causeway across the western side of the lake.

    It can still be seen today and walked across by tens of millions every year. On southern end, there is a Su Shi Memorial Hall containing his poetry and calligraphy.

    1094 – 1100: Second exile in Huizhou and Hainan

    In 1094, the empress dowager died. 

    The emperor Zhezong then gained complete power over the court and decided to revive the New Policies. This meant purging those who had previously criticised the New Policies…

    Su was particularly harshly targeted. He was sent down on another remote posting, this time in Huizhou, Guangdong Province. 

    To add to his discomfort, he was forced to stay in a temple on the outskirts of town. Whilst here in 1096, wrote the following lines:


    My messy white hair is filled frost and wind, 
    my sickly body lies on a bed in a small dwelling.
    When he hears that the gentleman is in a sweet spring sleep,
    the monk gently rings the dawn temple gong.

    – Su Shi

    It is said that after reading these lines, the Prime Minister Zhang Dun remarked that ‘Su Shi is still enjoying himself!’ and decided to up his punishment’s severity.

    Su was sent to a posting on the even more remote and tropical Hainan Island. This was about as far as an official could be sent from the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng.

    And the likely motivation was to bring about a rapid decline in Su’s health. Su wrote to his nephew at the time:

    老人住海外如昨,但近来多病瘦瘁,不复往日,不知余年复得相见否?[.…] 饮食百物艰难 [.…] 药物酱酢等皆无,厄穷至此,委命而已。老人与过子相对,如两苦行僧耳。
    This old man is still living beyond the seas. Recently, I have become sickly and thin. I wonder whether I’ll see you again in my remaining years [.…] Varieties of food and drink here are in short supply […] There is no medicine, condiments, or sauces of any kind […] There is nothing to do but to resign ourselves to our fate. I sit facing my son Guo, the two of us are like deprived Buddhist monks.

    – Su Shi (与元老侄孙四首)

    The Huizong Emperor’s reign (1100 – 1126 AD)

    Auspicious Cranes by Huizong Emperor
    Auspicious Cranes (1112 AD) by Huizong Emperor, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    1100 – 1101: Final return from exile

    In 1100, Su received a pardon from the new Emperor Huizong (himself a passionate calligrapher and artist), and given a posting in Chengdu, in his native Sichuan province.

    However, this return to home and prestige wasn’t to be realised. He died en route in the city of Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, aged sixty-four.

    To what should human life be compared? A wild goose trampling on the snow. 
    The snow momentarily retains the imprint of its feet, then the goose flies away to no one knows where.

    – Su Shi

    He was buried alongside his first wife, Wang Fu, on a hill in Ruzhou (today’s Linru, Henan Province). The hill is named Emei, after a mountain in Su’s hometown of Meishan.

    Literary afterlife: Banned and then bestseller

    Su had a profound influence on other artists and poets during his lifetime.

    However, his works were banned by government officials for twenty-five years after his death.

    This is because of his criticisms of the New Policies, which the government attempted to revive (led in part by the unpopular prime minister Cai Jing).

    Cai, himself a calligrapher, even had steles (stone monument) erected with a list of hundreds of ‘disgraced’ officials’ names engraved into them. Su’s name headed them all.

    Half of China was taken over by the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) in 1126. Su’s philosophy lived on in the Jin. A Qing dynasty scholar summarised the situation as:

    The Chengs teachings flourished in the south, Su’s teachings in the north.

    – Wang Fankang

    Su’s work was published at least 9 different editions during the Song dynasty alone.

    And since then, he has long been regarded as one of the greatest figures in all of China’s rich literary history.

    Su’s philosophical beliefs

    Su held relatively conservative social and political views. He held a mixture of Confucian,Daoist and Buddhist values.

    His Confucian beliefs would inform both his career and personal relations. Contrary to a popular misconception, Confucianism does not bound its adherents to blindly accept authority.

    So, some of Su’s later outspokenness can be seen in the light of him following the Confucian precept of essentially speaking truth to power.

    This principle can be summed up by a precept of the great Confucian thinker Xun Zi (ca. 298 – 235 BC):

    A minister follows the way; he does not follow the ruler.

    – Xun Zi

    Daoism is in many ways a more metaphysical and inward-looking system than Confucianism.

    Su’s thoughts on art in particular and his outlook more broadly seem to be clearly inspired by Daoist precepts (see below, ‘Daoism’s impact on Su’s art’).

    His Buddhist beliefs seem to have grown during his first stay in Hangzhou. However, elsewhere he mentioned his parents’ devotion to it. During the Song dynasty, Buddhism wasn’t looked on kindly by all. 

    Su friend and mentor, Ouyang Xiu, for example, saw it as an essentially negative foreign influence.

    Su’s art theory

    Su is credited with formulating a lot of the distinction that later came to be called ‘literati art‘. This was art seen as different to the kind created by professional artisan artists.

    In fact, he is the first person to directly define the concept, which once referred to as ‘shírén huà ‘gentlemen painting‘ (士人画 [shírén huà]). 

    Later on, the Ming scholar-artist Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636) would give literati painting the name it’s now known by in Chinese: ‘literati painting‘ (文人之画 [wénrén zhī huà]).

    Literati art is art created by gentlemen scholars that aimed at something different to the professionals’ realistic and direct representation.

    It is something done by cultured scholars in their free time, which expressed their inner cultivated self.

    Professional artists, by contrast, were trained from youth to focus mainly on the skill and techniques of art. They painted what they were told to paint for money. 

    For the literati, the opposite was the case – Su or others would gift people calligraphy and paintings, but would never accept commissions or payments.

    Su once wrote:

    If anyone discussed painting in terms of formal likeness, 
    His understanding is nearly that of a child. 
    If when someone composes a poem, it must be a certain poem, 
    He is definitely not a man who knows poetry. 
    There is one basic rule in poetry and painting:
    Natural genius and originality.

    – Su Shi

    He had a clear hierarchy of the three perfections of Chinese art (in the following order):

    • Calligraphy
    • Poetry
    • Painting

    What is used up in poetry overflows to become calligraphy and is transformed to become painting: both are what is left over from poetry.

    – Su Shi

    And he often improvised paintings and poems when drunk with friends. One account has it that he would often fall asleep quickly after drinking, before waking up revived to paint at the same party.

    Perhaps it was after one of these moments that led him to apologising to a friend for painting bamboo on his walls…

    Art historian Susan Bush wrote:

    Perhaps the closest we can come to Su’s [view] [is] painting is said to now be similar to calligraphy and poetry and to reflect the character of the maker as these two arts do.

    – Susan Bush, The Chinese Literati on Painting: Su Shih (1037 – 1101) to Tung Chi’i-ch’ang (1555 – 1636) (1971)

    Daoism’s impact on Su’s art

    Daoism’s influence can clearly be seen in Su’s philosophy of art. He often made comments that reflect the Daoist (and Confucian) seeking of ‘Dao‘ (‘the Way’).

    I say that Dao can be made to come but cannot be sought. What do I mean by ‘made to come’? […] In the south there are many divers who live in the water in every day. At seven they wade, at 10 they can float, and at fifteen they are able to dive. Could the divers be what they are without effort? They must have grasped the way of the water…. Thus, a hardy man from the north who questions the divers to seek their method of diving and tries out what they tell him in the Yellow River, will inevitably drown. Hence, anyone who does not study and insists on seeking Dao is a northerner learning diving.

    – Su Shi

    This references a key Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (3rd century BC):

    If [a good swimmer] can swim underwater, he can operate a boat even if he has never seen one before… A good swimmer can usually do this because he has forgotten that the water exists…. because to him surging water is no different from a gentle hill… even if his vessel is tossed and turned in all directions, it doesn’t get to him, so he is relaxed and leisurely wherever he sails.

    – Zhuangzi (19.4)

    Su’s Poetry

    Su wrote poems throughout his life. Today, 2,700 of them survive, ranging across the shifu and ci styles.

    Su’s poetry is often described as being very visual. His own words show that he believed strongly in the connection, or spill over, between poetry, painting and his calligraphy.

    In politics, he had clear Confucian leanings. But as mentioned, His Daoist and Buddhist concerns seem to shine through in a lot of his poetry:

    I hate not to be the master of my own life
    When at last shall I be able to forsake the worries of this world
    And, dropping the mooring of my little boat,
    Entrust my remaining years to the rivers and the seas?

    – Su Dongpo

    Su’s Prose

    Su is considered one of the ‘Eight Great Tang and Song Dynasty Prose Masters’.

    He was an admirer of the Tang dynasty prose master Han Yu (768 – 8 24 AD).

    Su’s calligraphy

    one night by su shi
    One Night (1080 – 1083 AD) by Su Shi, running script, ink on paper. 27.6 x 45.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    The Song dynasty is famous for its calligraphy.

    One of Su’s accolades is to be listed among the ‘four great calligraphers of the Song’, along with:

    Su was skilled at all of the major calligraphic styles (including the regular, running, and cursive scripts).

    His writings on calligraphy (and painting) show that he aimed to express a sense of direct spontaneity rather than planned perfection in his work.

    For example, he is known for choosing not to hold the calligraphy brush in the prescribed way

    However, that doesn’t mean he was completely against any sense of formality.

    But he wasn’t against all formalities in learning the art. 

    He believed that the different calligraphy styles should be learned in a specific order: regular script, followed by running script before grass script.

    He also believed in studying paintings by contemplating them rather than repetitively copying them.

    In this way, he believed a calligrapher could absorb the original’s spirit, which would then shine through in his own work.

    Su’s calligraphic influences

    Su admired the work of Eastern Jin dynasty calligraphers Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) and his son Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD).

    The elder Wang had long been considered ‘the sage of calligraphy’ by the Song dynasty. His son was held in high regard in his own right as a highly skilled innovator of new calligraphic styles

    Like many in the Song dynaty, Su also admired the Tang calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

    Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew (758 AD) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on hemp paper, running script. 28.3cm x 75.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)

    But Su – like others – also admired Yan’s powerful and elegant semi-cursive script style.

    Su also modelled his calligraphy in part on the vigorous regular script of the late Tang dynasty masterLiu Gongquan (778 – 865 AD).

    Mongolian Imperial Edict by liu gongquan
    Mongolian Imperial Edict (822) by Liu Gongquan, running script, ink on paper, 26.8 x 57.4cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Su’s calligraphy’s features

    Su’s style evolved over the course of his career and he like to experiment after studying other models.

    But it is possible to generalise that his calligraphy is strikingly free-flowing and powerfully expressive.

    He tended to use thick strokes (Huang Tingjian criticised him for using too much ink).

    In running script, he created balanced, vertically well-aligned characters that occasionally featured cursive components, too.

    Cold Food Observance

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

    Su’s Cold Food Observance (寒食帖 [Hánshí Tiē]) is regarded as one of the three greatest examples of the running script style of Chinese calligraphy.

    Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping

    Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping by su shi
    Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping (1071) by Su shi, ink on paper, running script. 26.5 x 30.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source:  National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Su Shi’s Painting

    The Song dynasty saw a rise in the prominence of painting as an art form. It came close to achieving the status of calligraphy.

    And today, landscape painting from this era is considered one of the greatest periods in Chinese – or world – painting history.

    Su studied Chinese classical painting and particularly admired the Tang dynasty poet and painter, Wang Wei (699 – 759). He wrote:


    [Wang Wei] has soared above the images of this world, 
    Like an immortal crane released from its cage

    – Shu Shi

    Su’s fellow scholar-artist Mi Fu described an occasion when Su painted:

    When I first saw him he was slightly drunk and asked: can you paste this paper to the wall? It is official seal paper. Then he rose and made two bamboos, a bare tree, and a strange rock.

    – Mi Fu

    Although we have many accounts of Su’s paintings and of him painting, only a few surviving examples exist today.

    Wood and Rock

    wood and rock by su shi
    Wood and Rock by Su Shi, ink on paper, 42.3 x 26.7cm. (Image source: Alamy)

    One of Su’s few surviving paintings is Wood and Rock, which also features a colophon by Mi Fu. The original sold for 59.2 million USD in 2018.