The Song Empire was administered and run by scholar officials who were selected through a meritocratic system of examination and imperially orchestrated appointments. One of the results of this meritocracy was a flowering of painting and calligraphy — mandatory arts for scholar-officials.

Su Shi was born into a literary family in 1037. At the age of 19 he passed the highest-level civil service examinations with flying colours, and was marked out as a rising star within the world of officialdom.

A major personality of the Song era, Su was an important figure in Song Dynasty politics, aligning himself with Sima Guang and others, against the New Policy party led by Wang Anshi.

Su Shi was born in Meishan, near Mount Emei today Sichuan province. His brother Su Zhe and his father Su Xun were both famous literati. His given name, Shi, refers to the crossbar railing at the front of a chariot; Su Xun felt that the railing was a humble, but indispensable, part of a carriage.

Su’s early education was conducted under a Taoist priest at a local village school. Later his educated mother took over.

Su married at the age of 17. Su and his younger brother (Zhe) had a close relationship, and in 1057, when Su was 19, he and his brother both passed the (highest-level) civil service examinations to attain the degree of jinshi, a prerequisite for high government office.

His accomplishments at such a young age attracted the attention of Emperor Renzong, and also that of Ouyang Xiu, who became Su’s patron thereafter. Ouyang had already been known as an admirer of Su Xun, sanctioning his literary style at court and stating that no other pleased him more.

When the 1057 jinshi examinations were given, Ouyang Xiu required—without prior notice—that candidates were 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, especially in the case of Su Shi’s exceptional performance in the subsequent 1061 decree examinations.

Beginning in 1060 and throughout the following twenty years, Su 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 his name: sudi (Su causeway).

He had served as a magistrate in Mi Prefecture, which is located in modern-day Zhucheng County of Shandong province. 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.

Su Shi was often at odds with a 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.

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 was criticizing the emperor, when in fact Su Shi’s poetry was aimed at criticizing Wang’s reforms. It should be said that 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.

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 Buddhist meditation. With help from a friend, Su built a small residence on a parcel of land in 1081. Su Shi lived at a farm called Dongpo (‘Eastern Slope’), from which he took his literary pseudonym. 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.

His most famous piece of calligraphy, Han Shi Tie, was also written there. In 1086, Su and all other banished statesmen were recalled to the capital due to the ascension of a new government.However, Su was banished a second time (1094–1100) to Huizhou (now in Guangdong province) and Hainan island. In 1098 the Dongpo Academy in Hainan was built on the site of the residence that he lived in whilst 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.

It should be noted, however, that 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. 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.

After a long period of political exile, Su received a pardon in 1100 and was posted to Chengdu. However, he died in Changzhou, Jiangsu province after his period of exile and while he was en route to his new assignment in the year 1101. Su Shi was 64 years old.

Su Shi had three wives. Being a government official in a family of officials, Su was often separated from his loved ones depending on his posting.

Su Shi had three adult sons, the eldest son being Su Mai, who would also become a government official by 1084. Su Dai) and Su Guo are his other sons. When Su Shi died in 1101, his younger brother Su Zhe buried him alongside second wife Wang Runzhi according to his wishes.

After his death he gained even greater popularity, as people sought to collect his calligraphy, paintings depicting him, stone inscriptions marking his visit to numerous places, and built shrines in his honor. 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 a 3rd-century Chinese battle.

Today, Su Shi is recognised as one of the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song, and one of the four Song masters of calligraphy. His poems, including At Red Cliff, Cherishing the Past  and Prelude to the Water Melody, have become embedded in Chinese culture, inspiring landscape paintings and poetic illustrations throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. His calligraphy has been copied, studied and collected for centuries.

‘During the Song dynasty, a period of unsurpassed refinement in the arts in China, Su Shi had a brilliant and staggeringly varied career,’ explains art critic Alastair Sooke. A poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist, Su Shi was the pre-eminent scholar of the Song dynasty. ‘He was so prolific in so many different fields that it is very tempting to think of him as a proto-Renaissance man,’ says Sooke, ‘even though he was born four centuries before Leonardo.’

Edited by staff

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