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苏东坡 Su Dongpo (1037-1101 AD)

⬅️宋词 Ci Poems

Su Dongpo (苏东坡 1037-1101 AD), also known by his formal name Su Shi (苏轼), was a poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter of Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). He was also a gastronome. Dongpo Pork, a dish believed invented by him personally, is still super popular on Chinese people's table today. Other famous dishes that Dongpo originated include Dongpo fish, Dongpo tofu, Dongpo cake, and Dongpo soup, to name just a few. It is easy to imagine that Su Dongpo must invent these dishes while living in his upper class literati life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of them were created during his demotion or even when he was in exile, while Dongpo was living in almost extreme poverty.

Su Dongpo was a versatile artist. His poetry put him in the same class as the greatest poets such as Li Bai (李白,701-762 AD) and Du Fu (杜甫,712-770 AD). His cursive calligraphy was said to be among the top three in the history of China. His painting was the representative of so called Literati Painting. And as an essayist, Dongpo was one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of Tang and Song (唐宋八大家). But one thing that makes Dongpo unmatchable is that he is the most loved literati in China. People loved him then, and people still love him now. In 1079 AD, some officials of the reformist faction at the imperial court accused Su Dongpo, who was regarded as one of the rival conservative faction, for "denouncing the emperor" in his poetry. Dongpo was put into prison for four months. To find the evidence to support the prosecution, all of Dongpo's writings in the past decades, including poems, proses, correspondences between friends, families and associates were, were collected from all over the country and scrutinized. Dongpo had to interpret the lines of his poems and defended himself. He denied irreverence toward the emperor, only admitted the criticism of the New Policies that the emperor favored. That was completely legal by the law. The Justice Ministry gave a sentence of two years in prison for Dongpo's "political crime". But the censors from the Imperial Censorate insisted a death penalty. The plea for leniency was overwhelmed. The prime minister Wu Chong (吴充) remonstrated that if "Cao Cao could tolerate Mi Heng, why can't Your Majesty tolerate Su Shi?". When the emperor visited the ailing empress dowager, she said:"Pardon Su Shi then I will get well." Even Wang Anshi (王安石), the retired prime minister and the leader of the reformist faction, wrote to the emperor and suggested that "it is not appropriate to kill a talented literati during the era of a sage ruler". Eventually Su Dongpo was sentenced to exile to Huangzhou (黄州), a remote and difficult place along Yangtze River. That was the famous Crow Terrace Poetry Trial in history (乌台诗案).

The exile to Huangzhou was a big set back for Su Dongpo. In his reply to Li Duanshu (李端叔), Su Dongpo said:"After I was prosecuted, I was shut myself away. A small boat, straw sandals, I indulged myself in mountain and river, mixed in with woodmen and fishermen. I was often pushed and scolded by the drunk people. I started to like being unknown to others. People that I used to know did not send me a single word. Even I wrote to them, they did not reply." Dongpo was given a nominal minor post in Huangzhou, with no stipend. He had to rely on a small amount of saving to support his family. In the first day of every month, he divided the money into thirty shares, and hung them on the beam with strings. Every day he took down one of them for that day's expense. To help Dongpo with the hardship, the governor of Huangzhou lent Dongpo 8 acres of wasteland outside of the city to farm. That piece of land was called Dong-Po, for Dong (东) being east and Po (坡) being slope. That was the origin of his art name Su Dongpo. After he bought a farm cattle, Su Dongpo started his life as a farmer. "The land has been wasted for so long. We have a drought this year. I was exhausted working on the farm. I hope the harvest next year can make me forget the strains." Su Dongpo wrote in his Eight Poems of East Slope (东坡八首). "The old farmer told me not to let seedlings grow too thickly. To have a good harvest, better let cattle and sheep eat some of the seedlings. I thank him again for his wise words, and will never forget his kindness if I am free from hunger." Life was hard for Dongpo in Huangzhou. He had to take care of a household of twenty people, but he managed. "I found pork in Huangzhou is cheap like dirt. Noble and rich people do not eat pork, poor people do not know how to cook it." As Su Dongpo wrote in one of his poems Ode to Pork (猪肉颂), "Clean your wok, add little water, boil the pork in low heat. Be patient, not hasty. When the time is proper it will be tasty." That was the origin of a super popular dish in China, and people named it Dongpo Pork, after the great poet they loved. Today you still can find it in every city and on the table of every household. "Take two bowls of the pork every morning. Let people talk; every one in the house is satisfied." (Ode to Pork, 猪肉颂)

But bread was not the only thing in Dongpo's mind during his exile in Huangzhou. "Since I was exiled, I have often introspected about what I did in the past thirty years." Dongpo wrote in his letter to Li Duanshu (李端叔). "When I was young, I read and wrote for one purpose and for one purpose only, to take the imperial Jinshi examination. I passed the examination on the subject of remonstration, and that was what I did, to talk big about history, to argue right and wrong. People suffer from not knowing themselves. That was exactly what happened to me all these years." "The galls growing on woods, the textures showing on stones, what makes people think they are pretty are actually defects. So was most of what I did in the past thirty years. What you saw was the old me, not the new me." Dongpo did not give himself up to bitter in the exile, in contrary, he took this as an opportunity to explore himself and the world around him. He became more comfortable and less anxiety about adversity. Before the exile, Su Dongpo's writings were brilliant and witty, but also often irony and angry. Huangzhou played an important role on Dongpo's development both as a poet and as a person. His writings were full of the leniency and warmth of humanity. He was a different person. He became Dongpo. Many of his most acclaimed art works, including poetry, prose, calligraphy and painting, were created during his exile in Huangzhou. Just as Dongpo expected to spend the rest of his life in Huangzhou, his life took another turn.

In 1085 AD, Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗), the strongest supporter to the New Policies and the reformist faction at imperial court, died. The new emperor Zhezong (宋哲宗) was only nine years old. His grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager Gao, served as the regent. She was a staunch opponent to the New Policies. Right after she took the power, she recalled all the conservative factions and discontinued the New Policies. Su Dongpo was back to the imperial court again. He had the complete trust from the Grand Empress Dowager and was promoted to some important posts. It was well believed Su Dongpo was on his way to be the prime minister. But once again his temperament and personality became his worst enemy, just as they were his best friend during the time of adversity. The comeback conservative faction at the imperial court abolished all the policies implemented by the reformists. Dongpo believed there were some virtues in the new policies. Or as he argued at the imperial court, the damage of the conservatives' policies "was just as bad." But it is not fair to say that Dongpo did not learn anything from his exile. He knew he would inevitably involve in another faction strife if he stayed at the imperial court. So he asked to be transfered to the posts of local administration. After four or five times, Dongpo's request was finally granted. He was appointed the governor of Hangzhou (杭州). It was the second time he was sent to this beautiful and prosperous city located in southern China. People in Hangzhou welcomed the greatest scholar and poet of their time with whole heart. And Dongpo loved them back. When he arrived Hangzhou, it was experiencing a drought. The irrigation ducts from West Lake, the major water supply for Hangzhou, were clogged by the overgrowth of weeds. Dongpo ordered dredging and used the mud to build another causeway, much longer and wider than the Bai Causeway (白堤), which was built by Bai Juyi (白居易, 772-846 AD), the great poet and the governor of Hangzhou in Tang dynasty. Dongpo also built three small pagodas in the lake as landmark to regulated where water chestnuts could be grew. It still remains a major tourism attraction and a historical heritage relics in China. "Allow me to compare West Lake to a Miss West, With light or heavy makeup she is always the best" (Su Dongpo's A Drink on the West Lake after a Rain). That was how much Dongpo loved West Lake and Hangzhou.

There is a saying about Dongpo:"He was either on exile, or on his way to exile." Although it is supposed to be a joke, it has some merits. As the young emperor was coming of age, another storm was brewing on the horizon. In 1093 AD, the Grand Empress Dowager Gao died, and Emperor Zhezong (宋哲宗) took over the reins. It was not quite clear if it was out of his rebel mind, the first thing that Emperor Zhezong did was to restore the New Policies. Once again, the reformists were recalled and the conservative faction were demoted. Dongpo was on the top of the list. Only this time the punishment was extremely harsh. He was demoted to Huizhou, which was a very remote and wild place located in the southernmost of mainland China at that time. He was prohibited from undertaking any duties and any favors he might received from local officials were soon taken away. But as usual, whatever the situation was, Dongpo tried to make the best of it. Three years in Huizhou, he held no grudge in his heart and got along with everyone, cultured or uncultured. And he started to enjoyed the life there. "It is spring all year long at the foot of Luofu Mountain, Loquat and bayberry are ripe one after another. Having three hundred litchi every day, I do not mind being a southerner forever." As Dongpo said in A Poem in Huizhou. When Dongpo's enemies at the imperial court read the poem, they were furious. In 1097 AD, Dongpo was demoted again. Only there was no place further to the south on the mainland. So the imperial court banished Dongpo to Danzhou, Hainan Island (儋州,海南), the southernmost corner of the empire.

"No meat, no medicine, no roof, no accompanies, no charcoal in winter, and no spring water in summer", that was the description of life in Danzhou at that time. Accompanied by his youngest son Su Guo (苏过, 1072-1123 AD), and with the help of local people, Dongpo built a five room cottage. Like in other demotion destinations, He fitted in pretty quickly and found pleasure from this new chapter of his life. He also built several huts in the coconut groves to open an academy to teach local scholars. People in Hainan Island called it Dongpo Academy after Dongpo left. In 1109 AD, Fu Que (符确), one of Dongpo's student, became the first one from Hainan Island who passed the imperial Jinshi examination in history. Of course Dongpo did not forget his passion for fine foods. In one of letters to his son, Dongpo said:"I found oyster is delicious. But do not tell the ministers at the imperial court. I am afraid they also want to come if they hear." After living in Hainan Island for three years, it seemed Dongpo fell in love with this place. "Ten thousand miles of Hainan is truly my hometown (海南万里真吾乡)." Dongpo wrote in one of his poems. He probably thought his life was going to end in Hainan Island, for the first thing he did when he arrived Hainan was to make a coffin for himself. But the Emperor Zhezong died in 1100 AD at the age of only 23. The Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, 1082-1135 AD) succeeded and he proclaimed a general amnesty. Once again, Dongpo was recalled.

Everyone believed Su Dongpo was going to be the prime minister for certain. Some of his enemies at the imperial court were already being demoted, including Zhang Dun (章惇,1135-1105 AD) who was a reformist and had been the prime minister for seven years. He was also the mastermind behind Dongpo's exile to Huizhou and Hainan, and he used to be one of Dongpo's best friends. Zhang Dun and Dongpo passed the Jinshi examination in the same year. They became very close ever since. In 1079 AD, when Su Dongpo was threw into prison by the reformist faction, although one of the reformist himself, Zhang Dun defended Dongpo fiercely at the imperial court right in front of Emperor Shenzong. He chided Wang Gui (1019-1085 AD), the prime minister at that time, "Did you want the entire Su family to get executed?" When the prime minister replied that the accusation was the censor Shu Dan's words, Zhang Dun ridiculed the prime minister "Are you going to eat Shu Dan's saliva as well?" After Dongpo was exiled to Huangzhou, Zhang Dun sent Dongpo a letter of sympathy while many people cut their contact with Dongpo. In his reply to Zhang Dun, Dongpo said:"After I was sentenced to exile, I examine myself many time every day. Usually you and (my younger brother) Zi You were the only one who expostulated me over and over, but I was all over myself and did not listen." The friendship between Dongpo and Zhang Dun was sincere and precious. But it took a dive in 1086 AD when the conservative faction dominated the imperial court. Su Zhe (苏辙), Dongpo's younger brother, impeached Zhang Dun, a major reformist faction figure, at the imperial court. Dongpo did not say a word for Zhang Dun, but rather submitted another remonstration against Zhang Dun later. Zhang Dun was demoted. Dongpo's best friend at imperial court became his worst enemy and Dongpo paid a dear price ten years later.

In 1101 AD, Dongpo was on his way back to capital. Zhang Dun was already demoted to Leizhou (雷州), the southernmost corner of the mainland of China. His son Zhang Yuan (章援) was so worried that Dongpo and other rivals recalled to the imperial court would take vengeance against his father. He sent a 700 words letter to Dongpo to ask for mercy. Zhang Yuan probably did not know that four month ago in February, 1101 AD, Dongpo already wrote to his brother-in-law Huang Shi (黄实), Zhang Dun's son-in-law. In that letter, Dongpo said:"I was shocked to hear that Zi Hou (子厚, Zhang Dun's courtesy name) was demoted to Lei Zhou. Although Lei Zhou is far and remote, it has no plague. My younger brother had lived there for one year. He was quite alright. I hope this letter can provide some comfort to Madame Zhang." In June, Dongpo wrote back to Zhang Yuan:"I have known prime minister for over forty years. Although our opinions were different from time to time, our friendship has not changed much." "He was sent to a remote place at this age. I can understand his feeling. But what is good to bring up the past? Let's look forward to the future." At the end of this letter, Dongpo said:"I have to stop writing now. I am so tired." He was actually very ill. Two months later, in August, 1101 AD, Su Dongpo died. In a poem he composed right before his death, he said:"If some ask me about the achievements of my life, Huangzhou, Huizhou, and Danzhou", three destinations of his exiles.