8 Facts That You Need to Know About 'Chinese Da Vinci' Su Shi

There has been a lot of hype around the ‘holy grail’ of classical Chinese painting – Wood and Rock by Su Shi (1037-1101). For anyone outside the Chinese-speaking world who has never heard of Su Shi, they would be perplexed by the sensation caused by this Chinese painting. 

In fact, Su Shi was a legendary figure living like 'Chinese Da Vinci' in the heart of most Chinese people. Su Shi was a 'renaissance man' even before the Western concept came into existence. Here we have summarized some interesting facts about Su Shi to help you all understand this literary giant.

Su Shi's Wood and Rock to be offered at Christie's Hong Kong 

Su Shi's Wood and Rock to be offered at Christie's Hong Kong 

1. Su Shi was not only a painter. He was a polymath

As I said in the introduction, Su Shi sometimes likens to Leonardo da Vinci. Like his counterpart in the west, Su Shi was also a polymath. He excelled in writing, painting, calligraphy, and pharmacology, etc. His painting Wood and Rock is dubbed ‘a priceless cultural treasure’ by the auction house, but his legacy was more than just Chinese paintings. He was considered the top among Four Calligraphers in Northern Song, alongside Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu, and Cai Xiang. 

Su Shi is honoured as a major poet in the Song dynasty. His ci (lyrics/poems) are still highly celebrated by Chinese people even until now. Su Shi’s poems are notable for the diversity of topics covered, ranging from scenery depiction, historical events to personal sentiments. Therefore, in China, he is more commonly known by all ages for his literary achievements, rather than his artistic achievements.

Su Shi's calligraphy – The Cold Food Observance. Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei

Su Shi's calligraphy – The Cold Food Observance. Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei

Su Shi's calligraphy – The Cold Food Observance. Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei

2. Su Shi was a young prodigy who passed the highest-level civil service examination at the age of 20

In 1057, Su Shi passed the highest-level civil service examination at the age of 20, together with his younger brother, Su Zhe. The examination was known for its difficulty and even some candidates in their fifties failed to pass the test. Therefore, Su Shi’s outstanding performance caught the attention of Emperor Renzong (1010-1063), and the examiner, Ouyang Xiu, who was a prominent Chinese scholar-official. In spite of his young age, Su Shi quickly gained celebrity status after he provided perfect responses at the civil service examination.

Su Dongpo’s Bamboo and Rock is now kept in the National Art Museum of China

3. He came from a family of preeminent literati

Su Shi’s father, Su Xun (1009-1066), was a famous Song dynasty writer who was best known for his essays. Su Shi’s brother, Su Zhe (1039-1112), also had remarkable achievements in literature and politics. Three of them were revered as “San Su” (三蘇, meaning ‘Three Su’/ ‘Su trio’). All three of them were also grouped as ‘Eight Masters of the Tang and Song’ (唐宋八大家).

Portrait of Su Xun, Su Shi's father

Portrait of Su Zhe, Su Shi's brother
4. Su Shi’s career path was bumpy

Even though Su Shi was a versatile politician, his career path was bumpy. He was often at odds with Wang Anshi, a Chinese statesman who initiated a series of reforms when he served as a minister under Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085). The series of reforms, also known as ‘The New Policies’, created political factions in the court. After Su Shi criticised Wang’s reform in various essays and poems, Su Shi was persecuted by the New Policy Group. He tried to stay away from it and hence sought an official job as a local magistrate in Hangzhou. He later relocated to Zhizhou, Xuzhou and Huzhou which were all far away from the court. He earned a positive reputation for his excellent performance during his service.

Su Shi once wrote a poem about West Lake in Hangzhou

5. Su Shi almost died because of a trial

After Su Shi relocated to Huzhou, he wrote a thank you note to the Emperor Shenzong for the appointment, but with subtle implications about his frustrations in his career, as well as his criticism about The New Policies. Wang Anshi had already retired at that time, but the supporters of the New Policies continued to execute new reforms. Knowing that the note was not in favour of the new policy, the supporters tried to silence Shi Si. They extracted sentences from the note and accused Su Shi of writing a remark which was considered treasonous against the emperor.

Su Shi was charged with "denouncing the imperial chariot" and "great irreverence toward the emperor", which could lead to mandatory death penalty. Fortunately, Su Shi was commuted death sentence to exile to Huangzhou. Years later, he returned to the court but was exiled again to Huizhou and Hainan island. These two remote places were even farther from the court. This trial is often referred to as ‘Crow Terrace Poetry Trial’.

Image about Crow Terrace Poetry Trial


6. Meaning of his name

The name Su Shi consists of the family name ‘Su’ (蘇) and the given name ‘Shi’ (軾). In Chinese, the character ‘Shi’ means the front handrail of a carriage, taking its implication from being something that people depend on. Su Shi’s courtesy name, Zizhan (子瞻), means looking forward. So his name carries the political aspiration that his parents had for him.

Portrait of Su Shi

Su Shi is popularly known among Chinese for his literary name ‘Dongpo Jushi’, meaning ‘Resident of Eastern Slope’, a name that  Su Shi gave himself when he was living at a farm near the eastern side. He was therefore often called by the name ‘Su Dongpo’.

Chinese character '軾' (Shi) refers to the front handrail of a carriage

7. Su Shi had three lovers throughout his life

Su Shi had romantic relationships with three women throughout his life. At the age of 17, Su Shi married his first wife, Wang Fu, who was 16 years old at the time. They had a happy marriage until Wang Fu died in 1065, eleven years after they got married. Su Shi was heartbroken. Ten years after his first wife passed away, he still couldn’t forget his wife and composed a ci poem after dreaming of his deceased wife. The poem, ‘Jiangchengzi’, remains one of the most well-known poems by Su Shi.

Su Shi married his second wife, Wang Runzhi, three years after the death of Wang Fu. Wang Runzhi accompanied Su Shi through his ups and downs in officialdom and political exile. Wang Runzhi died in 1093, when Su Shi was in his fifties.

Su Shi had another concubine called Wang Zhaoyun, who was only 12 years old when she became Su Shi’s handmaid. Su Shi wrote a number of poems dedicated to Wang Zhaoyun. She died in 1096 and Su Shi never married again after her death.

Part of Former Ode on Red Cliff by Su Shi. Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei

8. He was such an avid foodie that he even had a dish named after him

Su Shi is called one of the four classical gastronomes. Legend has it that he came up with the recipe of the famous dish Dongpo pork during his exile to Hangzhou. He first braised the pork, added huangjiu (yellow wine) to make red-braised pork, then slowly stewed it on low heat. The pork should have both fat and lean meat in equal proportions. The dish has widespread popularity across China and is often called ‘Dongpo pork’.

Dongpo pork is a famous dish in Chinese cuisine