Also known as Su Zizhan (courtesy name); Su Dongpo [Su Tung-p'o] (pen name). Born: Meishan, Sichuan province, China, 8 January 1037. Family: Married in 1054; took Zhao Yun as mistress 1074. Career: Passed final civil-service examinations, 1057; government official from 1060, with the courtesy name Su Zizhan; obtained judicial post in the capital city Bianliang (now Kaifeng), 1069; demoted to provincial posts for opposing reforms in 1071, jailed in 1079 and banished to Huangzhou until 1084, where he farmed land and took the pen name Su Dongpo in 1082; recalled to the capital, 1086; appointed governor of Hangzhou prefecture, 1089; other official posts, 1091-97; second banishment, to Huizhou, 1094, then to Hainan Island, 1097: pardoned in 1100. Wrote more than 2,000 poems and more than 300 lyric pieces. Also active as essayist, calligrapher, and painter. Posthumously honoured as Wenzhong in 1235; tablets in his name removed from Confucian institutions in 1845. Earliest compilation of his work, 1097-1100, and there were three more editions during the 12th century. Died: in 1101.



Su Shi wenji [The Collected Writings of Su Shi], edited by Kong Fanli. 1986.


Su Wenzhonggong quanji [Complete Works of Su, Honoured as Wenzhong]. 1534.

Dongpo ji zhu [Works of Dongpo]. 27 vols., 1656.

[Works], edited by Shao Changhenh, from the version edited by Shi Yuanzhi. 1699.

[Works], edited by Zha Shenxing. 1761.

[Works: Composite Edition], edited by Feng Yingliu. 1793.

Su Wenzhonggong shi bianzhu jicheng (works; includes the zongan commentary), edited by Wang Wen’gao. 1822, reprinted, 1967; revised as Su Shi shi ji [Collected Poetry], 1982.

Dongpo ji [Works of Dongpo]. 40 vols., 1909.

Sibu congkan. 1929.

Dongpo yuefu jian [Dongpo's Lyrics], edited by Long Muxun. 1936.

Sibu beiyao. 1936.

Selections from the Works of Su Tung-p’o, translated by Cyril D. Le Gros Clark. 1931.

The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-p’o, translated by Cyril D. Le Gros Clark. 1935, reprinted 1964.

Chinese Lyrics, translated by Ch’u Ta-kao. 1937.

The White Pony (includes poems by Su Shi), translated by R. Payne. 1947.

Su Tung-p’o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet, translated by Burton Watson. 1965.

Zeng bu zu ben Shi Gu zhu Su Shi, edited by Zheng Qian and Yan Yiping (from the Qing Dynasty reconstruction of the 13th-century texts compiled by Shi Yanzhi). 1980.

Su Dong-po: A New Translation, translated by Xu Yuanzhang. 1982.

So Toba shishu, edited by Ogawa Tamaki and Yamamoto Kazuyoshi.4 vols., 1983-86.

Su Shi shi xuan [Selected Poems of Su Shi], edited by Xu Ji. 1986.


Jiazheng jingjin Dongpo wenji shilue [Annotated Selection of Prose by Dongpo], edited by Lang Ye. 1957.

Critical Studies:

”The Works of Su Tung-p’o” by J.C. Ferguson, in China Journal, 12, 1930; The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tung-p’o by Lin Yutang, 1948; ”Su Tung-p’o” in An Introduction to Sung Poetry by K. Yoshikawa, translated by Burton Watson, 1967; The Chinese Literation Painting: Su Shih (1037-1101) to Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang (1555-1636) by S. Bush, 1971; Major Lyricists of the Northern Sung by J.J.Y. Liu, 1974; Nature and Self: A Study of the Poetry of Su Dongpo with Comparisons to the Poetry of William Wordsworth by Vincent Yang, 1989; ”Su Shih and Culture,” in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, 1990, and ”This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China, 1992, both by Peter K. Bol; The Road to East Slope: The Development of Su Shi’s Poetic Voice by Michael A. Fuller, 1990; Word, Image and Deed in the Life of Su Shi by Ronald E. Egan, 1994; Mount Lu Revisited by Beata Grant, 1994; The Concept of the Relationship Between Painting and Poetry by Yuheng Bao, 1999.

Su Shi is one of the greatest men of letters in China’s 2,000-year cultural tradition. He was the best poet of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and a powerful prose stylist in an age of great writers. He provided prestige and theoretical justification for an emergent style that came to dominate literati painting for the next 800 years. Su Shi also was an effective local administrator and rose to high government office. He dabbled in Daoist herbal lore and wrote commentaries on the Confucian classics. For Su Shi, writing well was an important part of coming to know the world. Literariness and rhetoric were crucial for an adequate representation of a world of complex, constantly unfolding patterns of transformation. As he explains:

My writing is like a spring of ten thousand gallons; it does not choose its path as it goes out. On level land it flows smoothly and quickly, and a thousand miles a day is not difficult. When it comes to turns and breaks over mountains and stones, it follows the object to describe the form, and it cannot be known. That which can be known is that it always travels where it ought to travel, and it always stops where it ought to stop. It is like this, and for all else, I too cannot know.

The written text becomes an object record of where one has been, what one has encountered, and in the end, who one is. Despite Su Shi’s great talents and posthumous fame, however, he fought a losing battle as he attempted to find a significant role for aesthetic activity in the larger Chinese intellectual culture. Soon after his death, dao xue (or Neo-Confucian) moral philosophy rose to prominence, and the aesthetic was reduced to mere subjective colouration of experience that was dangerously distracting or, at best, just ephemeral. (See Peter Bol’s discussion of Su Shi in This Culture of Ours, pp. 254-99). In this new climate, poetry became just words nicely arranged on a page, and Su Shi became just a poet.

Unlike the textual corpora for many Chinese writers, enough of Su Shi’s writings remain and are datable for us to trace his intellectual and aesthetic development. His most important early work seems polarized about the problem of subjectivity. The political and historical essays Su Shi submitted in 1061 for an imperial examination confront the issue of partiality in forming government policy. In seeming contradiction, his earliest poetry has a strong inward turn. The ”Song of the Stone Drums,” a bravura performance piece, for example, is Su Shi’s account of a set of ancient rocks inscribed with commemorative poems. The ”Song” recreates an imagined history for the Drums to convey Su Shi’s impression of standing before the prehistoric relics. The poem’s bold imagery and the twists and turns in its organization explicitly reveal the wilfully shaping hand of the young poet.

Su Shi’s writings during his service as vice-prefect of Hangzhou, a major cultural centre in south China, show an enlargement of perspective. Strongly opposed to the reform regime then in power, Su Shi wrote a series of bitingly sarcastic poems to criticize the impact of the new policies. Among the most famous of these are ”Mountain Village, five quatrains” and ”Jesting with Ziyou.” In Hangzhou, Su Shi also began to explore the art of writing ci, a popular form of song lyric with prosodic requirements and thematic conventions very different from the more usual shi poetry. Su Shi quickly developed a distinctive ”unbridled” style of ci through which he wrote about topics previously reserved for shi. (Some of his contemporaries objected to this transformation of the song genre, and the debate continues down to the present day). Some of Su Shi’s best early ci are ”Twentieth Day of the First Month of Yimao (1075), Recording a Dream,” written to mourn his wife, and ”Mid-Autumn, Bingchen (1076),” written for his brother. After Hangzhou, Su Shi served as prefect in a series of smaller cities, and during this period, his fame as a poet, lyricist, and prose stylist continued to spread. The ”Account of the Terrace of Transcendence” written to celebrate the restoration of a small park while Su Shi served as prefect of Mizhou, suggests the allure of his prose style. The account, interpreting the new name for the park, addresses the weighty issue of transcendence and explains the broader meaning of the park’s rebuilding in the context of the history and folk traditions of the region. The skill with which Su Shi combines the two themes—and thereby significantly recasts the notion of transcendence—reveals both the breadth of Su Shi’s sensibility and his stylistic mastery.

Su Shi’s satiric verses eventually irritated the politically embattled regime, and they decided to set an example by arresting him for insulting the Emperor. Su Shi was duly convicted and exiled to the small city of Huangzhou on the Yangzi River, where he bided his time reflecting, writing, and cultivating a small farm called Dongpo (”East Slope”). Exile brought many previous trends in Su Shi’s thinking and writing to full maturity. Indeed, ”Su Dongpo” (”Su of East Slope”)— the name that he took for himself in Huangzhou—has come to stand for the persona developed through the writings in exile and is the name by which he is primarily known in both China and Japan. His compositions in Huangzhou reveal a ”firm, philosophic, yet jovial poise of spirit” (Fuller, p. 251). The series ”Eight Poems on East Slope,” for instance, celebrates the first crop harvested from the abandoned fields at East Slope and—with a very light hand— interprets the process of cultivation within the larger norms of Chinese civilization. Su Shi also finished his commentary on the Yi jing (”The Classic of Change”) in Huangzhou to give a systematic account of his position in the ever more inescapable metaphysical debates of the late 11th century. (See Peter Bol, ”Su Shih and Culture,” in Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching.) Three of Su Shi’s most famous literary pieces—two prose poems on Red Cliff and a ci, ”Cherishing the Old at Red Cliff”—were written at Huangzhou. The breath of perspective and boldness of imagination and composition mark these works as quintessential ”Su of East Slope.”

Su Shi set the pattern for many aspects of literati identity in late imperial China. Yet the enduring popularity of ”Su of East Slope” has strangely erased much of the complexity, richness, and seriousness of purpose that lies behind the persona.

Next post:

Previous post: