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Su Shi’s (1037-1101) writings on the arts are among the most remarkable in the Song. Su Shi is chatty, humorous, sometimes perverse. His poem “The Hall of Drunken Ink” is to an acquaintance who was adept in “draft cursive” (cao-shu), a free, often unreadable script in which a man of culture was supposed to be able to give expression to an otherwise suppressed extravagance of spirit.1 Su Shi’s poetries provide the idea of personal social care and concern to the social public. Another text that I chose is “Getting up at Night in a Boat.”2 The implication of social and political concerns through his beautiful and artist description of daily life inspires the readers to realize the real situation of the society throughout his poetic works.
Politics Through Emotions
To begin with, some background will help understand why Su Shi paid attention to politics in his poetry. He uses the ridiculing tone to express daily life and reflects the theme of political career through emotions. It is not hard to find his inspiration. He was a government official with frequent business trips, which were quite a common phenomenon for Chinese politicians.3 It was believed to be the best way to serve the empire, the most important duty. These shifts of posts were accompanied by traveling around famous sites, and later, spiraled into youji, so-called travel records.
At the same time, he was at odds with the current political fraction and new laws. Unfortunately, in 1079 Su Shi was imprisoned for his writings where he was mocking at the governmental system and was exiled to a minor post in Huangzhou. During the trial process of Su Shi, the court was analyzing his poems, looking for “slanderous intent.”4 Even though some references to the government officials sounded evil, some witty lines, irrelevant to the case, were also considered. Since then, he could not sign official documents or speak out on political issues. Su Shi never felt guilt after being exiled. He tried to analyze his crime but admitted that he felt innocent. However, society would not forgive such a claim.
On the other hand, exile years worked in favor of Su Shi’s literature. He had enough time to absorb the environment, to reflect, and to finally, write. Consequently, this time was highly productive for his art. This period of Su Shi’s life is also associated with his looking for peace and farmer lifestyle when his actions were devoted to finding harmony and following Buddhism. It affected the style of his work about Mount Lu. It represented a sort of appraisal of his view of the world and his relation to its political and social aspects.5 However, the form of the poem does not let the reader link it directly to something except nature experience.
Nature and True Emotions
Su Shi provides the imagery of natural scenery and voice, which displays an extremely beautiful environment to readers, and finally reflects the helpless emotion of bureaucracy. His poetry usually has a simple structure, a witty, but easy style. In some cases, its main particularity is in the multiplicity of interpretations. One will see resentment from the current political system while another will simply admire the poet’s passionate writing. Nevertheless, Su Shi’s emotions concerning the world of bureaucracy can be observed in a series of his works, and it is undeniable that he attempted to fight with this system in his artistic way.
“Getting Up at Night in a Boat” (1079) illustrates the simple beauty of daily things. According to Owen, “occasions of delight, whether staged or accidentally encountered, are a recurrent motif in Su Shi’s writing.” 6 Catching the moment and reflecting the recent experience on paper was Su Shi’s talent. The poem “Getting Up at Night in a Boat” gives a sense of presence to the reader, as if he was there with a poet. This effect was achieved thanks to the simplicity of the description. The reader can experience the mood of that night and absorb the dreamy environment before it goes away. The question of whether it was everything that Su Shi wanted to present remains.
This independence gained by Su Shi and reflected in his 1080s poetry symbolizes “the creation a realm palm and leisure that could be kept separate both from the demands of state service and from moral seriousness of Neo-Confucian self-examination and self-cultivation.”7 For instance, “The Hall of Drunken Ink” illustrates the passionate side of Su Shi’s art. This trait of his character was inseparable from him, and could not be influenced by any political situation. It was his leisure, along with traveling, and the poem shares his uncontrollable passion to the reader.
Public Issues in Mundane Details
Su Shi’s poems deal with small, mundane detail of daily life, but reveal the real situation of political and social concerns to the audience. During his political exile, he wrote light and amusing poetry, and one could suggest that it was his way of fighting with the embarrassment and tension. However, Hargett supposes that Su’s youji were just observations of moments of joy, not a “survival strategy.”8 What if such an approach to writing was connected with another kind of motivation?
Despite the dominance of Confucianism in China, Su Shi’s exile was accompanied by Buddhist meditations. Besides, his eagerness to comprehend and experience the mountain was consistently reflected in his poetry of those days. The idea of experiencing nature and changing the perception of landscapes to another level of spirituality has its roots in Buddhism. Consequently, Su Shi was expressing Buddhist ideology, and it became a core basis of his poems. Although, as mentioned above, Hargett supposed that Su’s exile poetry was nothing but an overview of happy moments, he claims that Su Shi is “never the outside observer,” and that his poetry has “multiple perspectives, which are always changing.”9 Hence, it can be interpreted in various ways, and one can always find his meaning.
Su Shi’s poetry concerns another serious topic – self-consciousness. His poems, including “The Hall of Drunken Ink” and “Getting Up at Night in a Boat”, remind the reader that mundane details can be crucially important. Paying a little attention to daily things gives a person a more comprehensive idea of life and of things that matter most. Doing what you are good at, what inspires you, is not always easy, but it is inevitable, as keeping the inner passion locked will never help a person to grow. Su Shi shows it in an unobtrusive manner which is easy to perceive, though hard to notice at once. Also, this idea has a connection with his Buddhism meditations and experiences, so this period of his life likely became one of his main drivers.
Su Shi poetic works are always providing a relaxed emotion to the audience, but the implication of social concerns is always reflecting behind the construction of beautiful words. Su Shi was the first to write about traveling as leisure. He provoked the appearance of a trend of travel-writing in China and inspired his future followers. Besides, this trend led to fundamental changes not only in the art society but also in the mindsets of the public in general.
Traveling had not been perceived as leisure before the Song period. It is especially hard to accept now when exploring new places became a normal type of entertainment. Hargett claims that only a little number of Chinese people used to travel a lot and had an opportunity to do it for pleasure.10 It was a privilege reserved for government officials and the wealthy upper class. As for the officials, those movements were an essential part of the bureaucratic system of those days, because they were frequently assigned to change posts. The Song period changed the situation. Sightseeing, short trips to scenic sites, and further day trip essays and notes became common parts of recreational life. It is noteworthy that Su Shi’s poetry also played a role in the establishment of such a trend.
Also, as it was mentioned above, Su Shi’s poem “Getting Up at Night in a Boat” is an example of pure, relaxed emotions. It provides the reader with a sense of lightness caused by the simple beauty of daily things. However, its words remind how independent this world is without people, what a life it has n it’s own. This philosophic topic is an endless source of thought-provoking ideas and concepts. It is not obvious at first sight, but Su Shi managed to implement it in a poem with simple structure and syntax.
The idea of the greatness of the world can also be found in one of his famous lines: “What need is there to go home? The rivers, mountains, wind, and moon have never had a permanent owner. The man of leisure is their master!”11 This concept is interlinked with Su Shi’s belief that home can be anywhere, and the world, nature, and all those scenic sites are there for everyone. For a modern person, such ideas seem common and well-known, but in this case, Su Shi suggested an innovative worldview. Besides, it was one thousand years ago, the gap seems to be immense. Nevertheless, Su Shi’s philosophy assimilated in Chinese society.
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To sum up, Su Shi’s poetry was remarkable for that period of Chinese history for a reason. He was brave enough to express his disagreement and reflections in his poems, and the political exile did not abolish or humiliate him as a person. He was eager to highlight social and political issues in his works, and successfully implemented his philosophy in simple verses. Moreover, his personality can be defined by the concept of the master of leisure. His particular approach to the perception of recreation and nature-inspired writers and the public for many years. Finally, his example demonstrates that no political system can destroy a passionate soul or influence someone who sees and understands the beauty and greatness of nature.
Hargett, James. “Su Shi and Mount Lu.” Department of East Asian Studies, State University of New York, 2004.
Hargett, James. “What Need is There to Go Home? Travel as a Leisure Activity in the Travel Records (Youji 游記) of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101).” The Chinese Historical Review 23, no. 2 (2016): 111-129.
Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
- Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 640-641.
- Ibid., 667-668.
- James Hargett, “Su Shi and Mount Lu,” Department of East Asian Studies, State University of New York, (2004): 4.
- Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, 674.
- Hargett, “Su Shi and Mount Lu,” 10.
- Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, 667.
- Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, 637.
- James Hargett, “What Need is There to Go Home? Travel as a Leisure Activity in the Travel Records (Youji 游記) of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101),” The Chinese Historical Review 23, no. 2 (2016): 126.
- Hargett, “Su Shi and Mount Lu,” 13.
- Hargett, “What Need is There to Go Home? Travel as a Leisure Activity in the Travel Records (Youji 游記) of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101),” 115.
- Ibid., 128.