Su Shih

Su Shih was without any doubt the greatest poet of the Sung.

Su Shih
Even as a young boy in eleventh-century China, Su Shih was clearly special. After finding a rare inkstone, he began to write stories and verses expressing his love of the natural world. His words flowed effortlessly. His brush danced across the paper.

Su Shih grew up to become a leading scholar and statesman, eventually taking the name Su Dongpo. Integrating his love of natural order and humanity into his writings and civic works, Su Dongpo promoted justice and condemned corruption — often at his own peril. His life was rife with reversals of fortune; but through it all he retained his grace, his humility, and his compassion.

The Old Fisherman

       I
Where does the fisherman go for a drink
when his fish and his crabs are all sold?
He never sets himself a limit: just keeps on drinking ’til he’s drunk,
and neither he nor the bartender totes up his tab.

II

When the fisherman’s drunk, his straw cloak dances,
searching through drunkenness to find the way home.
Light skiff, the short oars akimbo:
and when he wakes up he never knows where.

III

The fisherman’s awakening: spring river’s noon.
A dream cut short by falling petals, floating silks.
Wine awakened, drunken still, and drunk, he’s still awake.
He smiles upon this world of men, both now and gone.

IV

The fisherman’s smile: a seagull floating,
lost in a river of mist and rain.
By the riverside, on horseback, an official’s come,
to hire his skiff, to ferry him on toward the south.

J.P. Seaton

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.