Su Shi’s humour uses
veiled barb, the sarcastic "apology," the bitter
"poor mouth," and the detached self-mockery that convey
alienation and resistance to political tyranny. His poems include
pointed satires against greedy officials and misguided policies,
deadpan punch-lines, tongue-in-cheek caricatures, and Su’s
inimitable "dry mock." The Soong dynasty (976 -1279) under
which Su served marked an era of increasing centralized and
"absolutist" government. Literati
had less freedom to speak frankly than in Tang times, and the
accelerating and increasingly bitter factional strife from 1068
made it even more dangerous for a man to speak his mind. Su Shi,
most powerful and untrammelled of commentators, soon ran afoul of
the reigning regime and nearly lost his head in 1079.
Su Shi’s comic verse
can be divided roughly into two categories; one that attacks a
target, and one that erects a defence against the world’s stresses
This example takes aim
at a relatively simple target: human greed.
For the Green
Bamboo Study of a Monk
It's OK in dining to
have no meat;
Not OK in living to
have no bamboo.
Having no meat just
makes you skinny,
Having no bamboo
makes you vulgar.
A skinny fellow can
A vulgar scholar
can't be treated.
A bystander scoffs at
They seem lofty, yet
If you face this gent
& still chomp away,
Where in the world is
your Yangzhou crane?
Su’s verse deftly
tweaks our propensity to have our cake and eat it, too.
In 1079 Su’s satiric
verses got him in hot water with the pro-New Policies regime. After
a ludicrous trial that threatened Su with execution – averted
largely because Su Shi had friends in the palace – Su’s sentence
got commuted to "internal exile" in the Yangzi River
region. Su Shi received the empty assignment Assistant Trainer for
Naval Militia (an "auxiliary post" with no real duties);
banished to Huangzhou in remote Hubei, he at least escaped with his
life. His final jest needs explanation; during Soong times, the
penurious court sometimes paid officials partly in kind. Su's own
salary consisted of 1/3 cash and 2/3 used brewery sacks. To maintain
a living, Su would have to sell the nearly-worthless lees-stained
bags. Line 1 refers both to problems caused by appetite and to Su's
slander conviction for barbed verses.
On First Reaching
Laugh--how all my
life my mouth has kept me in the thick...
Growing old - my
'career' gets more and more ridiculous.
girdles the rampart-- I know the fish are great;
Lovely bamboos link
the hills--I'm aware the shoots are sweet.
For the banished, no
problem in being a Supernumerary,
For poets as a rule
have often served as Water Auxiliary.
I'm ashamed only that
I can't even do a speck of business,
And still have to
trouble officials for wine-pressing sacks!
Su’s allusions in 5-6
link him with Du Fu, greatest and most frustrated of poets at his
inability to win more than a Supernumerary post, and with several
Tang poets (like Du Mu), who served in the Naval Militia. Foods and
liquids course through the poem. Like highminded Tao Qian, Su Shi
laments how he has "mortgaged himself to mouth and belly."
But precisely in Huangzhou, where problems of livelihood have become
most acute, Su finds liberation from his bond. The desolate river
region affords free movement; it even offers sufficient nourishment.
Only his token emolument from an uncaring central government proves
truly useless; Su’s wit has wrought a typically Daoist inversion
of customary assessments about what proves "valuable" and
what proves "useless."
In 1071 Su Shi and his
brother (who was serving locally as a mandarin) passed through
in the area once
Su was about to
head south for a
himself. Mr. Liu
had got demoted further south and wrote the Su
brothers a poem protesting poverty and appealing for aid. "Out
of Food, Passing Chen" refers to Confucius' legendary
difficulties in the region. Though he and his disciples suffered,
Confucius had maintained the "gentleman's firmness in
adversity." Su's brother also echoed Liu's poem, comforting
Tho' with plans awry,
you can't worry about this year's harvest,
Myself at leisure can
insure you get full at tomorrow's breakfast.
Especially during his
years of disgrace in Huangzhou, Su Shi became famous for lyrics that
celebrate a freedom of the spirit. Few have noticed that this
spiritual freedom represents a defiant refusal to play the usual
"out-of-office, out-of-sorts" game of plaintive verse;
fewer still have noticed the essential role of comedy in producing
Su’s transcendental personae.