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Chinese Art
Su Shih (1037 – 1101)
Poems Written at Huang-chou on the Cold-Food Festival
Datable to 1082
Ink on paper
13 1/2 x 78 1/2 in (34 x 119.5 cm)

Word, Image and Deed in the Life of Su Shi –

Su Shi and the Humor of Resistance

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 -1100 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 and pressures.


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 be refattened,

A vulgar scholar can’t be treated.

A bystander scoffs at these words:

They seem lofty, yet seem foolish!

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 Huangzhou

Laugh–how all my life my mouth has kept me in the thick…

Growing old – my ‘career’ gets more and more ridiculous.

Endless Yangzi 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 Shouchun (in southern Henan, in the area once called "Chen"). Su was about to head south for a provincial post 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 him:

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. 

David McGraw