Su Shi
Posthumous Yuan dynasty portrait of Su Shi by Zhao Mengfu
Born8 January 1037[1]
Died24 August 1101(1101-08-24) (aged 64)[2]
Occupation(s)Poet, essayist, calligrapher, painter, and scholar-official
Notable work
ParentSu Xun (father)
RelativesSu Zhe (brother)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Dongpo Jushi
Traditional Chinese居士
Simplified Chinese居士
Literal meaningEast Slope Householder
Su Dongpo
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Su Shi (simplified Chinese: 苏轼; traditional Chinese: 蘇軾; pinyin: Sū Shì; 8 January 1037 – 24 August 1101), courtesy name Zizhan (子瞻), art name Dongpo (東坡), was a Chinese poet, essayist, calligrapher, painter, and scholar-official who lived during the Song dynasty.[3] A major personality of the Song era, Su was an important figure in Song Dynasty politics, he had a lengthy career in bureaucracy, taking various provincial posts and briefly serving as a senior official at the imperial court. Despite his high hopes to serve the country, Su's political career was filled with frustrations due to his out-spoken criticism, and he often fell victim to political rivalries between the radical and the conservative forces. [4] He endured a series of political exiles during which his creative career flourished.[5]

Su is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished figures in classical Chinese literature,[4] leaving behind him a prolific collection of poems, lyrics, prose, and essays. His poetry had enduring popularity and influence in China, Japan, and other areas in the near vicinity and is well known in some English-speaking countries through translations by Arthur Waley and Stephen Owen, among others. In arts, Su was described by Murck as "the preeminent personality of the eleventh century."[6] His prose writings contributed to the understanding of topics including 11th-century China's travel literature and iron industry.[7] His writing frequently touched upon the topic of cuisine, where he is considered to have had a profound influence.[8] Dongpo pork, a prominent dish in Hangzhou cuisine, is named in his honor.

Su remains a revered and beloved figure among both intellectuals and the general populace, transcending the boundaries of his era. Contemporary researchers Zhu and Wang have observed that Su's impact on the Chinese people's values and beliefs is profound, asserting that his cultural and philosophical influence rivals that of notable philosophers like Mencius and Zhuangzi.[9]

Early life and education


Su Shi was born in Meishan, near Mount Emei in Sichuan province. His father Su Xun and his younger brother Su Zhe were both renowned scholars. His given name Shi () refers to the crossbar railing at the front of a chariot. Su Xun remarked that the railing, although unassuming, played an essential role in the carriage, carrying his hopes and aspirations for Su Shi.

Su Shi's early education was conducted under a Daoist priest at a local village school. When he reached the age of 10, his education transitioned to homeschooling, initially guided by his mother, Lady Cheng, and subsequently by his father, Su Xun. Over the course of more than a decade, Su Xun dedicated himself to comprehensive studies of classical literature, philosophy, and historical texts, while providing coaching to his two adolescent sons as they prepared for the imperial examination.[10]

Su Shi married at the age of 17. Su Shi and his younger brother Su Zhe maintained a close relationship since their childhood.[11]

Official career


Initial success and fame


In 1057, at the age of 19, Su Shi and his brother both passed the highest-level civil service examinations and attained the degree of jinshi, a prerequisite for high government office.[12] His accomplishments at such a young age attracted the attention of Emperor Renzong and leading literary figure Ouyang Xiu, who became Su's patron thereafter. Ouyang had already been known as an admirer of Su Xun, endorsing his literary style at the imperial court and stating that no other pleased him more. When the 1057 jinshi examinations were given, Ouyang Xiu unexpectedly required candidates to write in the ancient prose style when answering questions on the Confucian classics. The Su brothers gained high honors for what were deemed impeccable answers and achieved celebrity status, particularly due to Su Shi's exceptional performance in the subsequent 1061 decree examinations.[13]

Provincial posts


Beginning in 1060 and throughout the following twenty years, Su Shi 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 the name sudi (蘇堤, 'Su causeway'). He had served as a magistrate in the Mi Prefecture, which is located in modern-day Zhucheng County in Shandong. Later, when he was governor of Xuzhou, he 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.[14][15]

Political exiles


Su Shi was often at odds with the 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.[16] 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 Shi was criticizing the emperor, when in fact his poetry was aimed at criticizing Wang's reforms. Wang Anshi played no part in this action against Su, for he had retired from public life in 1076 and established a cordial relationship with Su Shi.[16] 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 practicing Buddhist meditation. With help from a friend, Su built a small residence on a parcel of land in 1081.[17] Su Shi lived at a farm called Dongpo ('Eastern Slope'), from which he took his literary pseudonym.[18] 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.[12] His most famous piece of calligraphy, Han Shi Tie, was also written there. In 1086, Su Shi and all other banished statesmen were recalled to the capital due to the ascension of a new government.[19] However, Su was banished a second time (1094–1100) to Huizhou and Danzhou, Hainan.[12] In 1098 the Dongpo Academy in Hainan was built on the site of the residence that he lived in 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. 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 and 1075 with concern that it expressed abusive and hateful sentiments against the Song court.[20] 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.[20]

The final years


In 1100, Su received a pardon and was posted to Chengdu, after a long period of political exile. However, he died in Changzhou, Jiangsu after his period of exile while en route to his new assignment in the year 1101.[12] Su Shi was 64 years old.[19] After his death he gained even greater popularity, as people sought to collect his calligraphy, depicted him in paintings, marked his visit to numerous places with stone inscriptions and built shrines in his honor.[12] 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 the 3rd-century battle.[12]


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A depiction of Su Shi from 1743

Su Shi had three wives. His first wife was Wang Fu (1039–1065) from Sichuan, who was sixteen when they married. She died on the second day of the fifth month 13 years later,[a] after bearing him a son, Su Mai (蘇邁). Heartbroken, Su Shi wrote a memorial (亡妻王氏墓志銘), stating that Wang had not just been a virtuous wife, but had also frequently advised him regarding the integrity of his acquaintances during his time as an official.

Ten years after the death of his first wife, Su Shi composed a ci poem after dreaming of her while in Mi Prefecture. The poem, "To the tune ,"River Town" (江城子), remains one of the most famous poems Su Shi wrote.[21] [failed verification]

In 1068, two years after Wang's death, Su Shi married her cousin Wang Runzhi (王閏之, 1048–1093), who was 11 years his junior. Wang Runzhi spent the next 25 years accompanying Su Shi through his ups and downs in officialdom and political exile. Su Shi praised Runzhi for being an understanding wife who treated his three sons equally (his eldest, Su Mai (苏迈/蘇邁), was born by Wang Fu). Once, Su Shi was angry with his young son for not understanding his unhappiness during his political exile. Wang Runzhi chided Su Shi for his silliness, prompting Su Shi to write the domestic poem "Young Son" (小兒).[22]

Wang Runzhi died in 1093, at forty-six, after bearing two sons, Su Dai (苏迨/蘇迨) and Su Guo (苏过/蘇過). Overwhelmed by grief, Su Shi expressed his wish to be buried with her in her memorial (祭亡妻同安郡君文).

Su's third wife, Wang Zhaoyun (王朝雲, 1062–1095) was a former Qiantang Gējì or singing girl.[23] Wang was about twelve when Su bought her at Hangzhou. Zhaoyun learned to read and write at Su's house. Of all the women in Su's life, Zhaoyun was probably the most famous, as she tried to "grow to her husband's spiritual level", and who seems to "understands him best". Su expressed his gratitude to Zhaoyun for her companionship to his exile in his old age, as well as her shared quest with the poet for immortal life via Buddhist and Taoist practice.[24]

Su's friend, fellow poet Qin Guan wrote a poem, "A Gift for Dongpo's concubine Zhaoyun" (贈東坡妾朝雲), praising her beauty and lovely voice. Su Shi himself dedicated a number of his poems to Zhaoyun, including "To the Tune of 'Song of the South'"(南歌子), "Verses for Zhaoyun" (朝雲詩), "To the Tune of 'The Beauty Who Asks One To Stay'" (殢人嬌·贈朝雲), and "To the Tune of 'The Moon at Western Stream'" (西江月). Zhaoyun remained a faithful companion to Su Shi after Runzhi's death, and died of illness on 13 August 1095 (紹聖三年七月五日) at Huizhou.[25] Zhaoyun bore Su Shi a son, Su Dun (蘇遁), on 15 November 1083, who died in infancy. After Zhaoyun's death, Su Shi never married again.

Being a government official in a family of officials, Su Shi was often separated from his loved ones depending on his posting. In 1078, he was serving as prefect of Suzhou. His beloved younger brother was able to join him for the mid-autumn festival, which inspired the poem "Mid-Autumn Moon" reflecting on the preciousness of time with family. It was written to be sung to the tune of "Yang Pass."[11]

As evening clouds withdraw a clear cool air floods in

the jade wheel passes silently across the Silver River this life this night has rarely been kind

where will we see this moon next year

Su Shi had three sons who survived to adulthood: the eldest, Su Mai (蘇邁), who would also become a government official by 1084;[26] the second, Su Dai (蘇迨); and the third, Su Guo (蘇過). When Su Shi died in 1101, his younger brother Su Zhe (蘇轍) buried him alongside his second wife Wang Runzhi according to his wishes.




Calligraphy by Su Shi: A detail of The Cold Food Observance (寒食帖)

Approximately 2,700 poems and 800 letters penned by Su Shi have been preserved to date.[12] His mastery spanned across various forms, including the shi, ci and fu styles of poetry, as well as prose, calligraphy, and painting. While a significant portion of his poetry is in the shi format, it is his 350 ci style poems that largely cemented his poetic legacy.

Su Shi's repertoire also includes a substantial body of essays, with many focusing on politics and governance. One of them being Liuhoulun (留侯論). He is recognized as one of the most esteemed essayists of the Tang and Song dynasties, earning him a place among the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song.

In both his literary creations and visual artistry, Su Shi seamlessly blended elements of spontaneity, objectivity with detailed and vivid depictions of the natural world.



Su Shi is renowned as a founding figure of the háofàng school in ci poetry, characterized by a spirit of boldness and a broader theme. Su Shi expanded the ci genre's thematic range, infusing it with a variety of non-traditional topics, many of which were drawn from his own life experiences. His lyrics delved into deeper, more contemplative subjects like aging, mortality, and the intricacies of public service, resonating more profoundly with contemporary audiences. As an innovator of the háofàng style, he introduced elements typically associated with masculine activities, including hunting motifs, and intertwined Buddhist philosophical concepts and political references, traditionally reserved for more esteemed forms of poetry. [27]

Some of his notable poetry works include the First and Second Chibifu (赤壁賦 The Red Cliffs, written during his first exile), Nian Nu Jiao: Chibi Huai Gu (念奴嬌·赤壁懷古 Remembering Chibi, to the tune of Nian Nu Jiao) and Shui diao ge tou (水調歌頭 Remembering Su Zhe on the Mid-Autumn Festival, 中秋節). The two former fu-style poems were inspired by the Battle of Chibi, a naval battle of the Three Kingdoms era that occurred in the year 208.

In one of his shi style poems, Su famously described the difficulty of conveying Mount Lu's beauty: "Why can't I tell the true shape of Mount Lu? Because I myself am in the mountain."[28]

Su wrote multiple poems at Huangzhou amid political banishment; in fact, the Huangzhou exile was a most prolific period for the poet.[29]

One of the examples is a playful and biting poem on the first bath of his new-born son by his third wife Zhaoyun.

On the Birth of a Son .洗兒戲作

"Immortal by the River" Returning at Night to Linggao" (臨江仙 · 夜歸臨皋) (written in 1082 CE):

Composed in 1082 CE, this song reflects the period when Su Shi faced demotion and relocation, now known as the Huangzhou district in Hubei Province. Despite enduring political adversity, Su Shi maintained an appreciation for the natural world. The lyrics convey his aspiration to abandon the chase for status, fame, and wealth, and instead embrace a life of seclusion.[27]

''Settling Wind Waves (Ding feng-bo) (定風波)'':[30]

His popular politically charged poetry was often the reason for the wrath of Wang Anshi's supporters towards him, culminating with the Crow Terrace Poetry Trial of 1079.

He also wrote poems on Buddhist topics, including a poem later extensively commented on by Eihei Dōgen, founder of the Japanese Sōtō school of Zen, in a chapter of his work Shōbōgenzō entitled The Sounds of Valley Streams, the Forms of Mountains.[31]

Travel record literature

The Su Dongpo Memorial of Huizhou.

Su Shi also wrote of his travel experiences in 'daytrip essays',[32] which belonged in part to the popular Song era literary category of 'travel record literature' (youji wenxue) that employed the use of narrative, diary, and prose styles of writing.[33] Although other works in Chinese travel literature contained a wealth of cultural, geographical, topographical, and technical information, the central purpose of the daytrip essay was to use a setting and event in order to convey a philosophical or moral argument, which often employed persuasive writing.[32] For example, Su Shi's daytrip essay known as Record of Stone Bell Mountain investigates and then judges whether or not ancient texts on 'stone bells' were factually accurate.[34]

A memorial on the Chinese iron industry

An illustration of a blast furnace smelting cast iron, with bellows operated by a waterwheel and mechanical device, from the Nong Shu, by Wang Zhen, 1313

While acting as Governor of Xuzhou in 1078, Su wrote a memorial to the imperial court about issues faced in the Liguo Industrial Prefecture was under his administration. In an interesting and revealing passage about the Chinese iron industry during the latter half of the 11th century, Su Shi wrote about the enormous size of the workforce employed in the iron industry, competing provinces that had rival iron manufacturers seeking favor from the central government, as well as the danger of rising local strongmen who had the capability of raiding the industry and threatening the government with effectively armed rebellion. It also becomes clear in reading the text that prefectural government officials in Su's time often had to negotiate with the central government in order to meet the demands of local conditions.[35]

Technical issues of hydraulic engineering


During the ancient Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) of China, the sluice gate and canal lock of the flash lock had been known.[36] By the 10th century the latter design was improved upon in China with the invention of the canal pound lock, allowing different adjusted levels of water along separated and gated segments of a canal.[37] This innovation allowed for larger transport barges to pass safely without danger of wrecking upon the embankments, and was an innovation praised by those such as Shen Kuo (1031–1095).[38] Shen also wrote in his Dream Pool Essays of the year 1088 that, if properly used, sluice gates positioned along irrigation canals were most effective in depositing silt for fertilization.[39] Writing earlier in his Dongpo Zhilin of 1060, Su Shi came to a different conclusion, writing that the Chinese of a few centuries past had perfected this method and noted that it was ineffective in use by his own time.[40]

Although Su Shi made no note of it in his writing, the root of this problem was merely the needs of agriculture and transportation conflicting with one another.[40]


Dongpo pork

Su is called one of the four classical gastronomes. The other three are Ni Zan (1301–74), Xu Wei (1521–93), and Yuan Mei (1716–97).[41] There is a legend, for which there is no evidence, that by accident he invented Dongpo pork, a famous dish in later centuries. Lin Hsiang Ju and Lin Tsuifeng in their scholarly Chinese Gastronomy give a recipe, "The Fragrance of Pork: Tungpo Pork", and remark that the "square of fat is named after Su Dongpo, the poet, for unknown reasons. Perhaps it is just because he would have liked it."[42] A story runs that once Su Shi had decided to make stewed pork. Then an old friend visited him in the middle of the cooking and challenged him to a game of Chinese chess. Su Shi had totally forgotten the stew, which in the meantime had now become extremely thick-cooked, until its very fragrant smell reminded him of it.[citation needed] Some legends point to the contrary, however, where other villagers simply named the pork dish after him to honour his death, although no concrete evidence points to any conclusion.

Su, to explain his vegetarian inclinations, said that he never had been comfortable with killing animals for his dinner table, but had a craving for certain foods, such as clams, so he could not desist. When he was imprisoned his views changed: "Since my imprisonment I have not killed a single thing... having experienced such worry and danger myself, when I felt just like a fowl waiting in the kitchen, I can no longer bear to cause any living creature to suffer immeasurable fright and pain simply to please my palate."[43]

See also

Wood and Rock[44]






  1. ^ 14 June 1065 in the Gregorian calendar


  1. ^ Su Shi wrote in his short essay Xian Qu Qiu Shi that his birthday was on the 19th day of the 12th month. Also, his biography in History of Song indicated that he was 66 (by East Asian reckoning) when he died in the 1st year of the Jian'zhong Jing'guo era of Emperor Huizong's reign (1101 in the Julian calendar) (《献曲求诗》:元丰五年十二月十九日东坡生日,置酒赤壁矶下,踞高峰,酒酣,笛声起于江上。客有郭、尤二生,颇知音,谓坡曰:"笛声有新意,非俗工也。”使人问之,则进士李委闻坡生日,作南曲目《鹤南飞》以献。呼之使前,则青巾紫裘腰笛而已。既奏新曲,又快作数弄,嘹然有穿云石之声,坐客皆引满醉倒。委袖出嘉纸注一幅曰:"吾无求于公,得一绝句足矣。”坡笑而从之。)
  2. ^ According to Su Zhe's epitaph for his elder brother, Su Shi died on the dinghai day of the 7th month of the 1st year of the Jian'zhong Jing'guo era of Emperor Huizong's reign. This corresponds to 24 Aug 1101 in the Julian calendar.
  3. ^ Whitfield, Roderick (2003). "Su Shi". Grove Art Online. Bibliography updated by Henning von Mirbach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T082440. ISBN 978-1-884446-05-4. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. ^ a b Zhang, Longxi (4 November 2022). A History of Chinese Literature. London: Routledge. pp. 217–218. doi:10.4324/9781003164173/history-chinese-literature-zhang-longxi. ISBN 978-1-003-16417-3.
  5. ^ Ridgway, Benjamin (2012). "From the Banquet to the Border: The Transformation of Su Shi's Song Lyrics into a Poetry of National Loss in the Restoration Era". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 34: 57–103. ISSN 0161-9705.
  6. ^ Murck (2000), p. 31.
  7. ^ Wagner, Donald B. (2001). "The Administration of the Iron Industry in Eleventh-Century China". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. 44 (2): 175–197. ISSN 0022-4995.
  8. ^ Wilkinson 2018, p. 510.
  9. ^ Wang and Zhu, preface
  10. ^ Wang and Zhu, 56-59
  11. ^ a b Red Pine, Poems of the Masters, Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 140.
  13. ^ Hymes, 61.
  14. ^ Wagner, 178
  15. ^ Hegel, 13
  16. ^ a b Ebrey, East Asia, 164.
  17. ^ Hegel, Robert E. (1998). "The Sights and Sounds of Red Cliffs: On Reading Su Shi". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). 20: 11–30. doi:10.2307/495262. ISSN 0161-9705.
  18. ^ Cheang, Alice W. (1993). "Poetry, Politics, Philosophy: Su Shih as The Man of The Eastern Slope". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 53 (2): 325–387. doi:10.2307/2719453. ISSN 0073-0548.
  19. ^ a b Hegel, 14
  20. ^ a b Hartman, 22.
  21. ^ Su, Shi. "Dreaming of My Deceased Wife on the Night of the 20th Day of the First Month". Retrieved 16 December 2023.
  22. ^ Tomlonovic, Kathleen M. (1989). Poetry of exile and return: a study of Su Shi (1037-1101) (Thesis thesis).
  23. ^ "【惠州文脉·西湖】苏东坡的"两个西湖"".
  24. ^ Lin, Yutang (1948). The Gay Genius - the Life and Times of Su Tongpo. William Heinemann Ltd. pp. 192, 312–313.
  25. ^ Egan, Ronald C. (1994). Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (1st ed.). Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press. p. 328.
  26. ^ Hargett, 75.
  27. ^ a b "Introduction to the Text, To the tune "Immortal by the River"—Returning at Night to Linggao. Global Medieval Sourcebook". Retrieved 3 October 2023.
  28. ^ Jin, Keyu (2023). The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism and Capitalism. New York: Viking. p. 303. ISBN 978-1-9848-7828-1.
  29. ^ Egan, 213
  30. ^ Owen, Stephen (1996). An anthology of Chinese literature: beginnings to 1911. New York London: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-97106-4.
  31. ^ Bielefeldt, Carl (2013), "Sound of the Stream, Form of the Mountain: Keisei Sanshoku" (PDF), Dharma Eye (31), Sotoshu Shumucho: 21–29
  32. ^ a b Hargett, 74.
  33. ^ Hargett, 67-73.
  34. ^ Hargett, 74–76
  35. ^ Wagner, 178–179
  36. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 344-350.
  37. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 350-351.
  38. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 351-352.
  39. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 3, 230-231.
  40. ^ a b Needham Volume 4, Part 3, 230.
  41. ^ Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, Rev. and enl., 2000): 634.
  42. ^ Hsiang-Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin, with a Foreword and Introduction by Lin Yutang, Chinese Gastronomy. New York,: Hastings House, 1969 ISBN 0-8038-1131-4. Various reprints, p 55.
  43. ^ Egan, Word, Image, and Deed, p. 52-53.
  44. ^ "Christie's | Wood and Rock by Su Shi | Fine Chinese Classical Paintings | Christie's".



Further reading