Dec 1, 2023
9 mins read
9 mins read

Su Dongpo: Song Dynasty Renaissance Man (Part 2)

Su Dongpo: Song Dynasty Renaissance Man (Part 2)

2. Calligraphy

One of Su’s accolades is to be listed among the ‘four great calligraphers of the Song’, along with: 

He was skilled at all styles, including one of the oldest official forms (clerical script)the formal regular (or official) script or the much freer running (or semi-cursive) script.

Like Mi Fu, Su aimed at expressing a sense direct spontaneity rather than planned perfection in his work. He is known for choosing not to hold the calligraphy brush in the prescribed way.

However, that doesn’t mean he was completely against any sense of formality.

He believed that the different calligraphy styles should be learned in a specific order – regular script (楷书 [kǎishū]) and running script (行书 [xíngshū]) before grass script (草书 [cǎoshū]), for example.

He also believed in studying paintings by contemplating them rather than repetitively copying them. In this way, he believed a calligrapher could absorb the original’s spirit, which would then shine through in his own work.

He admired the work of Eastern Jin dynasty calligraphers Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) and Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD), and Tang calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

In fact, his informal style may in part have been reaction part a reaction to copying trends. The Tang dynasty Emporer Taizong’s often had Academy calligraphers copy the two Wang’s works.

Cold Food Observance

Su’s Cold Food Observance (寒食帖 [Hánshí tiē]) is regarded as one of the three greatest examples of the running script style of Chinese calligraphy.

(The other two are Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Orchard Pavilion Collection and Yan Zhenqing’s Draft to a Requiem for my Nephew).

It consists of two poems which recount Su’s commemorating of the Cold Food Observance festival (no longer widely celebrated in China) in exile.

The content of his words is sombre, brushwork is brilliantly flowing and clear. At the opening and closing each poem the brushwork drastically fluctuates, elegantly fusing the content and style of the piece.

Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su DongpoCold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 34.2 X 118cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Letter to Guo Tingping

Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping by Su ShiLetter to the Filial Guo Tingping (1071) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 26.5 x 30.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source:  National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

3. Painting

Su studied Chinese classical painting and was particularly a fan of the Tang dynasty poet and painter, Wang Wei, of whom he wrote:

摩诘得之于像外
有如仙翮谢笼樊

[Wang Wei] has soared above the images of this world,
Like an immortal crane released from its cage

– Su Dongpo

Su’s fellow scholar-artist Mi Fu described an occasion when Su painted:

When I first saw him he was slightly drunk and asked: can you paste this paper to the wall? It is official seal paper. Then he rose and made two bamboos, a bare tree, and a strange rock.

– Mi Fu

Painting new expressiveness innovative. Although we have many accounts of Su’s paintings and of him painting, only a few surviving examples exist today.

Wood and Rock

One of Su’s few surviving paintings is Wood and Rock, which also features a colophon by Mi Fu. The original sold for 59.2 million USD in 2018.

Wood and Rock by Su ShiWood and Rock by Su Shi, ink on paper, 42.3 x 26.7cm. (Image source: Alamy)

Summary

  • Su Dongpo, born as Su Shi in 1037 AD near Meishan, Sichuan, came from a wealthy, literary family. Su married at 17, but tragically, his first wife died in childbirth
  • He was a dedicated scholar, passing the highest level civil service examinations at 19, an achievement that required extensive study of key Chinese classics
  • His literary pseudonym, Su Dongpo, came from the farm’s name where he lived during his first political exile. Su was a sociable individual, known for his friendships with other influential Song figures
  • Su’s philosophical beliefs encompassed a blend of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist values. His Confucian belief encouraged speaking truth to power, while his art and broader perspectives were significantly influenced by Daoism
  • Su Dongpo who rose through the ranks quickly early in his political career. But he faced punishment and exile due to his open disapproval of the reforms proposed by politician Wang Anshi
  • During his first exile in Huangzhou, Su produced many of his most famous works
  • Following his second wife’s death, he remarried and returned to politics but was again exiled due to further criticisms of the emperor
  • Su was pardoned in 1100 but died before he could return to his home province. His work, initially banned after his death, became influential and was published in multiple editions
  • Su was renowned for his expertise in “the three perfections”: calligraphy, poetry, and painting. His philosophy of art was deeply influenced by Daoism, emphasizing natural expression over rigid conventions



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