Su Shi (Su Shih)

Su Shi (Su Shih)
Su Shi (Su Shih)
One of the most famous and easily recognizable voices in China’s 3,000-year-old history, the great poet Su Shi left behind an impressive body of writing that underscores the major themes of Chinese civilization.

In Su Shi’s poetry, the reader encounters traditional Chinese values such as the appreciation of others, friendship, fraternal harmony, reverence for nature, and the preoccupation with time—all addressed in a special, elevated mode of feeling, tone, and expression that the Chinese would term shiqing, or lyricism.

In the Chinese tradition this elevated mode of expression is akin to what in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is ordinarily understood as religious sentiment and the expression of religious feeling.

For the Chinese people literature and culture (wen), especially poetry, were experienced as a religious engagement, a spiritual exercise.

Thus when Su Shi in his most characteristic poems, such as the “Rhapsody on the Red Cliffs” (I and II), expresses sadness over the Chinese collective memory of great heroes and ages gone by, the poet is partaking in what the Chinese believed was a most exalted vocation; he serves as a bridge between the past and the present, ensuring the continuity of culture.

To the Chinese people, to participate in the preservation and creative transformation of culture over time was to help ensure that Chinese culture attained the same divine immortality as nature.

The Chinese ascribed to nature and her aspirant, culture, a kind of basic tendency toward the good, the nurturing, and the generally positive qualities of existence that many Westerners would tend to find somewhat naïve. While it is true that Chinese culture places far greater emphasis on the lighter, more optimistic, side of existence, the Chinese were hardly immune from suffering.

The life of the poet Su Shi is a case in point. Su Shi’s career as a high official in Chinese government was full of unpredictable turns. He was exiled from the capital to two of the harshest backward regions of his day.

One of them, Hainan Island, was a kind of tropical version of Siberia. In Su Shi’s writings it may at first glance seem as if none of these harsh experiences had registered in his mind at all.

Yet that is only the case because of the different aesthetic and cultural demands for poets to submit their voices to standards of restraint, moderation, and, in cases of taboo subjects or very negative experiences, omission.

Given Chinese culture’s tendency to shy away from the darker side of experience, the true legacy of a great Chinese poet like Su Shi is the expression of sadness over the passing of time, as seen in the perennial theme of the gap between human mortality and the immortality of nature in Chinese poetry.

Because of the Chinese reverence for nature and belief in nature’s propensity to goodness, the true source of tragedy in Chinese existence is the gap between the human and cosmic scales of time, the recognition that no matter how great the man or woman, how significant that person’s contributions to culture, humanity, and the world, the person must ultimately pass away, whereas nature, quite oblivious to the fact, simply continues.

Because this discrepancy between human and cosmic time is the main source of tragedy in Chinese conceptions of life, the result is that in lyric expression, the poets mostly hold to the old Chinese ideal of “joy without excess, sorrow without pain,” as in one of Su Shi’s celebrated poems, “Harmonizing with Qin Guan’s (Ch’in Kuan) Poem on Plum Blossoms”:
Ten thousand miles of spring scenery follow the traveler,
Ten years of flowering blossoms send the beauty to her old age.
Last year when the flowers bloomed I was already ill,
This year facing the flowers I am still a mess.
Who knows when the winds and rains will send spring home,
When I will collect the leftover fragrance and return it to Heaven.