Su Tung-p’o and The Enlightenment of the Writer

Su Shi (1037 – 1101), also known as Su Dongpo (or Tung-p’o, depending on the translation) was a Chinese writer, poet, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome, and a statesman of the Song dynasty. He had quite a tumultuous life, often being at odds with the political factions in power, for this reason being forced into exile multiple times. “Red Cliff One” and “Red Cliff Two,” two of his most notable poems, were written during his first exile, in 1082.

The major differences between “Red Cliff One” and “Red Cliff Two” relate mainly to the way in which the ultimate revelations about man’s fleeting life and nature’s eternity are achieved.

In the first prose poem, the understanding is realized socially – through dialog and in company of others, Su Tung-p’o being the one who enlightens the others. The poet and a group of friends are on a boat trip on the Yangtze River, passing by the presumed site of the Battle of Red Cliffs (a legendary battle fought in the winter of 208 AD for the control of the Yangtze River – some historians have called it the largest naval battle in recorded history). One of the friends bemoans the fleeting existing of the human being. Su Tung-p’o tries to console him, revealing his wisdom:

“I said, ‘Do you really understand the water and the moon? Here, it flows by yet never leaves us; over there, it waxes and wanes without growing or shrinking. If you look at things as changing, then Heaven and Earth do not last for even the blink of an eye. If you look at them as unchanging, then I along with everything am eternal. So why be envious? Moreover, each thing within Heaven and Earth has its master. If I did not possess it, then I would not take even a hair of it. However, the pure wind over the river becomes sound when our ears capture it, and the bright moon between the mountains takes on form when our eyes encounter it. There is no prohibition against our acquiring them, and we can use them without ever consuming them. They are from the inexhaustible treasury of the Creator-of-Things, which you and I can enjoy together.’”

In “Red Cliff Two,” it is the author who is being enlightened, having an epiphany by himself in the heart of nature. The construction of the poem is subtler than the first one’s. Su Tung-p’o does not explain anything, like in “Red Cliff One,” but lets the readers meditate by themselves and arrive at their own realization. When reading “Red Cliff Two,” the slow revelation is done through description of images and emotions:

“I lifted up my robe and alighted. I made my way among sharp crags, parting the overgrowth to crouch on rocks shaped like tigers and leopards and to climb up trees twisted like horned dragons. I pulled myself up to the precarious nests of falcons and peered down at the hidden palace of the river god P’ing I. My two guests were unable to follow me this far. I suddenly let out a sharp cry. The plants and trees were startled and shook; mountains resounded, valleys echoed. Winds arose, and the water became agitated. For my part, I became hushed and melancholy, then awed and fearful. Then I began to tremble so that I could no longer remain there.”

The two poems do contrast each other, for the previously mentioned reasons. However, they also complement each other. There is a consistency between the two, in the sense that you can believe that the person speaking in the first one can have the solitary revelation in the second, Su Tung-p’o thus revealing two lyrical selves. More than that, the social and the solitary revelations are not presented as being one better than the other, just different. The writer becomes enlightened not only through solitude or social interaction, but also through the actual process of writing, the process of expressing ideas through words, which makes him meditate on the events and their meaning.

Su Tung-p’o has attained artistic immortality through the power of his writing, by the fact that after almost 1000 years he is still able to move us through his words. After all, this is the desire of any writer – to breach space and time, reaching the minds and hearts of faraway unknown readers.

Works cited:

Strassberg, Richard E., translator, annotations, & introduction Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China. Berkeley:  Univ. of Calif. Press, 1994.

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