Su Shih (1037-1101), also known as Su Tungp'o, was a Chinese author and artist. He was the most versatile genius in the history of Chinese literature. He excelled in every form of verse and prose he attempted and further distinguished himself as a calligrapher and painter.
Su Shih was born in Meishan, in present-day Szechwan, to a most remarkable family of rather obscure origins. His father, Su Hsün (1009-1066), and younger brother, Su Ch'e (1039-1112), also attained literary fame, and all three are listed among the eight prose masters of T'ang and Sung. The Su brothers studied under the personal guidance of their father and mother, an educated woman and devout Buddhist. In 1056, accompanied by their father, the brothers went to the capital, Kaifeng, to take the civil service examination, and the next year they both earned the Chin-shih degree with high honors.
The chief examiner, Ou-yang Hsiu, highly impressed by the literary talent of the three Sus, took them under his wing and spread their fame in the capital. However, upon the death of their mother in the same year, the brothers left with their father for Szechwan to observe the customary mourning period, and it was not until 1060 that they journeyed back to the capital to receive official appointments. In 1066 Su Hsün died, and the brothers returned home for the last time to observe the mourning period.
Su Shih served the government from 1061 until the year of his death in a series of capital and provincial posts. One had to be a high-ranking minister to be in a position to achieve deeds of statesmanship, but, unfortunately, during his official career Su Shih stood in opposition to the powerful Wang An-shih and his "New Laws" party and served in the capital only during the brief periods when the New Laws party was out of favor.
Though his memorials to the throne regarding the policies of the New Laws party show his responsible states-manship in the Confucian fashion, Su never played a leading role in national politics as did his great fellow writers Ou-yang Hsiu, Wang An-shih, and the historian Ssuma Kuang. After each brief stay in the capital Su would be maligned and exiled to local posts. However, as a humane and capable magistrate, he was much loved by the people of every district or prefecture where he served.
After serving in a series of provincial posts from 1071 to 1079, Su was arrested on charges of slandering the Emperor, imprisoned in the capital, and then banished to Huang-chou in a minor official capacity. In 1085, following the death of Emperor Shen-tsung, the New Laws party temporarily lost power, and Su was recalled to court, serving in the Imperial Hanlin Academy and filling other high offices. After he had contracted enmity with his blunt criticism, he repeatedly requested a provincial post. In 1089 he was appointed prefect of Hangchow, where he built a dike on the West Lake which is still named after him.
Su was back at court in 1091, and for the next 3 years he served alternately at the capital and as prefect of important cities. When the New Laws party returned to power in 1094, Su was banished to Hui-chou in Kwangtung and then ordered further south to Hainan Island off the coast of Kwangtung. Now in his 60s, Su bore his existence there cheerfully, partly because of his faith in Buddhism and partly because of his strong, irrepressible sense of humor, which inclined him to take things philosophically. With the accession of Emperor Hui-tsung in 1100, he was pardoned and restored to favor. The next year he died at Ch'ang-chou.
As a writer Su's achievement is so manifold that only a brief description of his contributions can be attempted here. He is one of the greatest prose writers in the "Ancient style, " equally adept in governmental criticism, reassessment of historical personages, and personal essays descriptive of his excursions. Like Ou-yang Hsiu, Su is a master of the lyrical fu. His two fu on the Red Cliff are a perennial delight to Chinese readers. He is the greatest poet in the shih style of the Sung period, at once descriptive and philosophic, combining an effortless use of metaphor and conceit with an expression of self that has imbibed the best in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
Su was a great innovator in tz'u poetry. He and his follower in the Southern Sung dynasty, Hsin Ch'i-chi, rank as the two greatest tz'u poets in the heroic mode. Until Su's time, the tz'u had retained its connections with the kind of popular song sung by courtesans, and most tz'u poets wrote about sentimental and mildly erotic themes suggestive of the feminine voice. Su turned the tz'u into a man's song, capable of philosophic meditation on events of the past. But he also wrote some of the best love poems in the tz'u style.
From all his writings one gathers the impression of Su as a most lovable person, affectionate, humorous, and capable of philosophic detachment. A great number of his shih poems were addressed to his younger brother, Su Ch'e, showing his great attachment to him. Su Shih wrote a most touching tz'u poem in memory of his first wife, who died at the age of 26. He had a second wife and a concubine named Chao-yün, whom he loved dearly. Upon her death in 1096, he wrote some of his most moving poems to her memory.
One of the four great calligraphers of the Sung dynasty, Su is also famous for his paintings of bamboo. In subsequent times, Chinese men of letters took Su as their model in trying to be scholar, poet, essayist, calligrapher, and painter. The literary style of painting, scorning laborious imitation for the expression of personality through the simple depiction of spare natural objects, may be said to have started with Su Shih.
Further Reading on Su Shih
A good introduction to Su's shih and tz'u poetry is Su Tungp'o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet, edited and translated by Burton Watson (1965), which also contains a succinct biography of Su. His works in the fu style are available, with copious notes, in The Prose-poetry of Su Tungp'o, edited and translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (1935; repr. 1964), which contains an excellent foreword by Ch'ien Chung-shu and a useful introduction by the translator. Le Gros Clark also edited and translated Selections from the Works of Su Tungp'o (1931). Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (1956), contains 25 poems of Su in a free rendering. The standard biography of Su in English is Lin Yutang, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo (1947), a highly readable book that contains ample information on Sung culture and politics and many extracts from Su's writings; it is written from a point of view characterized by abhorrence of Wang An-shih and his policies.