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Home History & Culture Chinese Sage Su Shi Biography

Su Shi Biography


Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101), popularly called Su Dongpo(苏东坡, a literary pseudonym from Buddhism), was a native of Meishan, Sichuan Province. His courtesy name was Zizhan and alternative name Hezhong. Su Shi was the greatest soul of ancient China in calligraphy, literature, painting, philosophy, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, cooking art. He was historically respected as a romantic poet similar to Li Po, and a realistic writer like Du Fu. His calligraphy and painting absolutely revealed his personality and deep understanding to philosophy and Zen. As a literary giant of Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Su Dongpo was not only of that time but the whole history of China. His poem, ci, fu, prose, essays and other types of writings were all ranked incomparably in literature history of China. He, next to Ouyang Xiu, actually was the leader of litterateurs in Song Dynasty. His calligraphy masterpiece could be valued as that of Wang Xianzhi, who was deemed as the Sage of Calligraphy. His painting entirely releases another aspect of traditional elite culture, and totally different from the paintings, his work was quite refreshing, imaginative and a little bit weird in some way. Su Dongpo was the great master of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. In his mind, there are no vivid difference among them, in other words, they are integrated together to shape his great soul.

However, why is he mentioned in this website only for East China travel, culture and history? Su Dongpo once acted as the governor of Hangzhou, Huzhou, Xuzhou and Huangzhou, three important cities of East China. The famous Su Causeway of West Lake and the delicious Dongpo Pork Cuisine are both closely connected to him. It is quite necessary to talk about this great soul here!

(Hanshi Tie Calligraphy)

(Dead Wood & Weird Stone)

(The Red Cliff Rhapsody)




Calligraphy Master & Han Shi Tie

Su Dongpo was one of four great calligraphers in Song Dynasty(宋四家, and three others were Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu and Cai Xiang). His calligraphic masterpiece was commented as his painting, thoroughly expresses his strong personality and self-cultivation.

In different ages, his calligraphy had different characteristics. In the early period, the representative was Zhi Ping Tie(治平帖), which shows his great ambition and devotion to the country, and the style of calligraphy was accurate, strict and graceful. The representative at his middle age was Han Shi Tie(寒食帖),which displays his sadness and frustration in Wutai Poem Case(乌台诗案, happened in 1079, which is mentioned below). The whole calligraphy was strongly featured of despair and bitterness, and it was historically considered as the best representative of his calligraphy, and listed as the third greatest running-script masterpiece of calligraphy in the world (two others were the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi and Condolence for My Dear Nephew by Yan Zhenqing). At his old age, the masterpieces were Dongting Chunse Fu(洞庭春色赋) and Zhongshan Songlao Fu(中山松醪赋) , both of which were tracked back to the tradition and history. And the calligraphy entitled Yu Xie Min Shi Lun Wen Tie(与谢民师论文帖) was considered as the last masterpiece before he passed away.

Han Shi Tie, literally a Calligraphy Writing on Hanshi Festival, was listed by Xian Yushu(鲜于枢, a great calligraphist of Yuan Dynasty), as the third greatest running-script calligraphy in history of China. Today, it is collected in Taipei National Palace Museum. It is comprised of two themed poems with Hanshi festival, a lost festival in history used to be thought as the alternative name of Qingming Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Festival, or the day before Qingming Festival when only the cold food was served to memorize Jie Zitui, as well as the postscript of Huang Tingjian, who highly spoke of this calligraphy. Hereinafter, the pictures of calligraphic parts are available.

The Portrait Painting of Su Shi   Han Shi Tie Calligraphy of Su Shi
Han Shi Tie Calligraphy of Su Shi   Han Shi Tie Calligraphy of Su Shi
Han Shi Tie Calligraphy of Su Shi   Han Shi Tie Calligraphy of Su Shi

The other representatives include Tian Ji Wu Yun Fu (天际乌云帖), Chun Tie Zi Ci(春帖子词), Ai Jiu Shi(爱酒诗), Shu Zhong Shi(蜀中诗), Huai Su Zi Xu (怀素自序), Yi Ye Tie(一夜帖), Ling Zi Tie(令子帖), Bao Yue Tie(宝月帖), Bei You Tie(北游帖) , Du Hai Tie(渡海帖), Dong Wu Tie (东武帖) and Mei Hua Shi Tie(梅花诗帖).

More to read in the Collection Page of Su Shi Calligraphy Masterpieces >>>>

Painting Master & Ku Mu Guai Shi Tu
(Painting of Dead Wood and Weird Rock)

Su Shi’s painting like his calligraphy and literary work is highlighted with the scholars’ characteristics, and is the representative of Chinese scholarly paintings. Su Shi preferred drawing the landscapes in daily life such as the bamboos, the rocks and so on. He was the founder of Huzhou Painting School, a typical scholar painting school that specialized in painting the bamboos.

The most famous paintings that Su Shi created are Xiaoxiang Zhushi Tu(潇湘竹石图, Xiaoxiang Bamboo and Stone Painting) and Kumu Guaishi Tu(枯木怪石图, Painting of Dead Wood and Weird Rock), especially the latter one. His painting is deeply influenced by Zen philosophy, and the appreciators have to know much beyond what he pictured. He quite focused on the innovation in painting, rather than the fixed way, and he preferred breaking the convention, and opening a new style that he preferred.

The painting of Kumu Guaishi Tu, or Painting of Dead Wood and Weird Rock

Literary Giant & Red Cliff Rhapsody

Su Dongpo was a great master of literature. His prose shares a rank with that of Ouyang Xiu, and his poem is as famous as that of Huang Tingjian, and his ci writing shares the same status with Xin Qiji, the greatest ci writer of Southern Song Dynasty. Su Shi, Su Xun and Su Che were known as San Su (三苏, Su Xun was the father of Su Shi and Su Che, who was the young brother of Shu Shi). There were also four great scholars respectively Yao Buzhi, Qin Guan, Huang Tingjian and Zhang Lei, all of who were deeply influenced by Su Shi and together historically called Su Men Si Xue Shi(苏门四学士, Four Scholars of Su Family). Su Shi was also one of Eight Most Famous Writers in Tang and Song Dynasties (唐宋八大家, the others were Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Zeng Gong, Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi, Sun Xun, Su Che). His literary works even were selected as the imperial examination content in Song Dynasty.

The most famous were the Former Red Cliff Rhapsody(前赤壁赋) and the Latter Red Cliff Rhapsody(后赤壁赋) Two great masterpieces absolutely show the greatness of humanity and independence of scholar’s spirituality. The Taoism and Buddhism are strongly written into the original, and the below is the Chinese and English Version of the Former Red Cliff Rhapsody:

English Translation

Original Text

In the autumn of the year Renxu, at the time of the full moon in the seventh month, I went by boat with some friends to the Red Cliff. There was a fresh, gentle breeze, but the water was unruffled. I raised my winecup to drink to my friends, and we chanted the poem on the bright moon, singing the stanza about the fair maid. Soon the moon rose above the eastern mountain, hovering between the Dipper and the Cowherd. The river stretched white, sparkling as if with dew, its glimmering water merging with the sky. We let our craft drift over the boundless expanse of water, feeling as free as if we were riding the wind bound for some unknown destination, as light as if we had left the human world and become winged immortals. Drinking, we became very merry; and we sang a song, beating time on the side of the boat. This was the song:

Our rudder and oars, redolent of cassia and orchids;
Strike the moon's reflection, cleaving the glimmering water;
But my heart is far away,
Longing for my dear one under a different sky.

One friend, who was a good flutist, played an accompaniment to this song. The notes rang out nostalgic, mournful and plaintive, trailing on and on like a thread of gossamer, arousing the serpents lurking in dark caverns, drawing tears from a widow in her lonely boat. Sad at heart, I sat up straight to ask my friend why the music was so mournful。

He replied, “Didn't Cao Cao describe a scene like this in his poem: 'The moon is bright, the stars are scattered, the crows fly south...?' And isn't this the place where he was defeated by Zhou Yu? See how the mountains and streams intertwine, and how darkly imposing they are with Xiakou to the west and Wuchang to the east. When Cao Cao took Jingzhou by storm and conquered Jianging, then advanced eastward along the river, his battleships stretched for a thousand li, his armies' pennons and banners filled the sky. When he offered a libation of wine on the river and lance in hand chanted his poem, he was the hero of his times. But where is he now? We are mere fishermen and woodcutters, keeping company with fish and prawns and befriending deer. We sail our skiff, frail as a leaf, and toast each other by drinking wine from a gourd. We are nothing but insects who live in this world but one day, mere specks of grain in the vastness of the ocean. I am grieved because our life is so transient, and envy the mighty river which flows on forever. I long to clasp winged fairies and roam freely, or to embrace the bright moon for all eternity. But knowing that this cannot be attained at once, I give vent to my feelings in these notes which pass with the sad breeze.”

Then I asked him, “Have you considered the water and the moon? Water flows away but is never lost; the moon waxes and wanes, but neither increases nor diminished. If you look at its changing aspect, the universe passes in the twinkling of an eye; but if you look at its changeless aspect, all creatures including ourselves are imperishable. What reason have you to envy other things? Besides, everything in this universe has its owner; and if it does not belong to me not a tiny speck can I take. The sole exceptions are the cool breeze on the river, the bright moon over the hills. These serve as music to our ears, as colour to our eyes; these we can take freely and enjoy forever; these are inexhaustible treasures supplied by the Creator, and things in which we can delight together.

My friend was pleased and laughed. Then we rinsed our cups and filled them with wine again. When we had finished the dishes, and cups and plates lay about us in disorder, we stretched out in the boat and did not notice the coming of dawn in the east.
This is a translation of Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang





苏子曰:“客亦知夫水与月乎?逝者如斯,而未尝往也; 盈虚者如彼,而卒莫消长也。盖将自其变者而观之,则天地曾不能以一瞬。自其不变者而观之,则物与我皆无尽也,而又何羡乎?且夫天地之间,物各有主。苟非吾之所有,虽一毫而莫取。惟江上之清风,与山间之明月。耳得之而为声,目遇之而成色。取之无禁,用之不竭,是造物者之无尽藏也,而吾与子之所共适。”


This is his most famous ci prose, named Shui Diao Ge Tou (Prelude to Water Melody) –

English Translation

Original Text

Thinking of you


Mid-autumn of the Bing Chen year
Having been drinking happily over night
I'm drunk
So I write this poem
Remembering my brother, Zi You


When will the moon be clear and bright?
With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the clear sky.
In the heavens on this night,
I wonder what season it would be?


I'd like to ride the wind to fly home.
Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions
are much too high and cold for me.
Dancing with my moonlit shadow,
It does not seem like the human world.


The moon rounds the red mansion,
Stoops to silk-pad doors,
Shines upon the sleepless,
Bearing no grudge,
Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?


People experience sorrow, joy, separation and reunion,
The moon may be dim or bright, round or crescent shaped,
This imperfection has been going on since the beginning of time.
May we all be blessed with longevity,
Though thousands of miles apart, we are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.


Cooking Art

Readers could read in the page of Dongpo Pork >>>>

Yoga Exercise

This is a popular way to healthcare. But in the period of Su Shi, he had the habit of exercising yoga. In 1079, Su Shi rejected the Reform of Wang Anshi, and wrote the poem to criticize the government, and this was the famous Incident of Wutai Poem, and then he was almost killed, thanks to the old rule that Emperor Taizu left, in which the scholars were forbidden to be killed by government, and he was demoted and sent to Huangzhou, today’s Huanggang, Hubei province. He built the house on the East Slope, and then called himself Dongpo, and just for he was a lay Buddhist, Dongpo Jushi(东坡居士) known widely. At the time, he led a very hard life. To keep the heath, he exercised the Yoga at night. That is the reason for him to do yoga exercise.

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Editor: Julius from Mildchina
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