Why I Like Su Shi

I’ve lately been reading “Chinese History Revisited” (“中國文明的反思”) by Xiao Jiansheng (蕭建生), in which the author, among other things, gives high praises to the Sung dynasty for its diverse, liberal and eclectic collection of literature and works of art. The relatively stable and prosperous Northern Sung era (北宋時代) under the rule of several benevolent emperors, during which intellectuals and scholars were able to enjoy a great deal of respect and creative freedom, provided a nurturing background for great literary talents like Su Shi and others. Six of the eight great scholars of classical literature of the Sung and Tang dynasty (唐宋八大家) were from the Sung dynasty. Su Shi, his father 蘇洵 and his brother 蘇徹 were among the six.

From a cursory study of Su Shi’s life history, it is hard not to be moved by his intoxicating love for his first wife (his emotions were nakedly displayed in his commemorative and elegiac song lyrics 江城子, which was written on the tenth anniversary of her death). Some contemporary critics are quick to point out that when he wrote the elegy, he had already been living with his concubine 朝雲 for a few years, thus it showed that he was not that loyal to his wife 王弗. To me, such criticism seems to be applying present-day mores to the ancient times, during which it was the social norm for a widower (even for a man whose wife was alive and well) to take on a concubine. Besides, why should the fact that he had a concubine be a cause for people to doubt his true and lingering emotions for the woman he had once loved with all his heart? On the other hand, neither does writing the elegy mean that he did not love his concubine. To the contrary, as we can see from another equally heart-breaking poem that he wrote after he subsequently lost his concubine to sickness: 悼朝雲詩. Indeed, I would say that Su Shi was an honest man who had no qualms about expressing his true emotions, including the great pains that he suffered from the loss of loved ones. It takes a man of great courage to lay bare his own vulnerability and his inner soul, even if on paper.

Apart from his literary writing skills, the poet was known for his free-mindedness, straight talking ways, patriotic and principled behavior as a court official, although his officialdom career was marked by quite a number of set-backs as a result of his audacity in speaking his own mind. In the early part of his career, he was opposed to the aggressive reform agenda of the prime minister 王安石, which he considered as too rash, as he thought that gradual reform would have a better chance of success. In the latter part, when 王安石’s reform proposals were all struck down by his successor 司馬光, Su Shi was not reticent either about his disapproval of the latter’s radical negation.

The following poem best sums up the tribulations of his career life. The poem, though self-mocking, has no bitterness in tone. He talked of his heart being numb like a log, and that he was feeling aimless like an unanchored boat. Then he named the three places where he was demoted to at different times of his life and said those places painted his entire career.

心似已灰之木, 身如不繫之舟。

問汝平生功業, 黃州、惠州、儋州。

These verses from two different poems show that Su Shi was an inward-looking person and was always aware of his own uncompromising character and unconventional leanings:-

我本麋鹿性, 諒非服轅姿

嗟我本狂直, 早為世所捐

As for Su Shi’s style of writing, the following excerpt from a letter written by him to his brother gives a description of how he viewed his own writing:-

“吾文如萬斛泉源, 不擇地皆可出, 在平地滔滔汨汨, 雖一日十里無難。及其與山石曲折, 隨物賦形, 而不可自知也。所可知者, 常行於所當行, 止於所不可不止, 如是而已矣。其他雖吾亦不能知也。”

(A translation found on the internet):-

“My style is like a spring of inexhaustible water which bubbles and overflows where it lists, no matter where. Running its course through the plains, it may glide along at the speed of a thousand li a day. When it threads its way through cliffs and mountains, one never knows beforehand what size it would assume to conform with these obstacles – it flows where it must flow and stops where it must stop.”

The following is one of my favorite poems 東欄梨花 by Su Shi and my own English rendition:-





Pale pear blossoms afloat, in a jade green sea of willow,

Svelte leaves waltzing in mid-air, with petals of snow.

Alas, by the east fence sits this tree that sparkles;

For how many springs we mortals can behold?

Other blogposts about Chinese poetry:-