Su Dongpo's life is one of the most celebrated in thousands of years of Chinese history.This book, the work of a brilliant scholar of the early twentieth century, is both a fitting testimony and a gushing love letter to the lasting influence of the man who holds one of the most prominent places for Chinese intellectuals over the centuries, and to those worldwide who choose to admire the lives of the most prominent figures of the many dynasties.
Su was a product of a social system that survived, in varying forms, for many centuries: a literati.His place in that span was during the northern Song dynasty, the latter half of the eleventh century.Taught to absorb as much as possible of the classics of Chinese literature at a young age, he came to prominence by his remarkable performance at the national examinations, the entry point into a life of participation in the upper reaches of the Chinese government.An apparently ungifted politician, his mark came at first through remarkable poetry and outspoken criticism of corrupt practices of government officials.Under Wang Anshi, the government was attempting to institute a system of "state capitalism," generally forcing farmers to participate in taking loans from the government in ways that led first to corruption and then to destitution in the countryside.
Su the social critic and defender of the little guy is established early in Mr. Lin's narrative.As the biography goes on, Lin calls him "an incorrigible optimist, a great humanitarian, a friend of the people, a prose master, an original painter, a great calligraphist, an experimenter in wine making, an engineer, a hater of puritanism, a yogi, a Buddhist believer, a Confucian statesman, a secretary to the emperor, a confirmed winebibber, a humane judge, a dissenter in politics, a prowler in the moonlight, a poet, and a wag." (vii)Politically, he spent the majority of his career exiled to lesser posts or in exile.At the end of his life, he was brutally persecuted essentially died from the poor conditions he lived in.
Su moved around a lot.My recent trip back to Hangzhou was the occasion for me to revisit this biography, which I first picked up five years ago.He lived in Hangzhou twice, and his fame is such there that you can order Dongpo pork and Dongpo Shrimp at the restaurants there even today.I (re)read most of this book in and around Hangzhou, the city where I could walk upon the famous land bridge across the famous West Lake that Su built a thousand years ago, and still exists just the same.
The flaw in this book is also a strength.The author is clearly in love with his subject, and there are times when one has to wonder how many of the stories that accrue to Su are apocryphal and how many of the warts of Su are not represented in the work.At some point, I don't suppose I care.The story of a man so intellectually curious, so able across many arenas of human accomplishment, is aweworthy to begin with.The growth of the angry young social critic into a mature, kind, forgiving man clearly in touch with himself and his enlightenment is unforgettable.Despite persecutions, despite the way his critics treated him, the model presented by Lin of Su is inspiring.We should all aspire to as much.