In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Su Shi (Su Dongpo)

  • Introduction
  • Life and Traditional Biography
  • Modern Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Databases
  • Conference Volumes
  • Journals
  • The “Three Su”: Su Xun, Su Shi, and Su Zhe
  • Su Shi and Contemporary Popular Culture

Chinese Studies Su Shi (Su Dongpo)
Benjamin Ridgway, Kathleen Tomlonovic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0142


A bibliographic review of Su Shi, Su Shih 苏轼 (1037–1101), known also as Su Dongpo 苏东坡 or by his given name Su Zizhan 苏子瞻, must be multifaceted because, unlike Chinese figures who are known primarily for their poetry, he was recognized as a scholar-official whose literary works referenced earlier philosophical, literary, and historical writings. Furthermore, his vast network of contacts in Northern Song (960–1127) society, including political, religious, literary, and artistic figures, brought variety and erudition to his writings as well as innovation in the sister arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting. This voluminous array has provided material for collators, printers, and publishers. In addition to his writings, events detailing service as a scholar-official for the Song court, factional disputes over governance, and times in exile have prompted compelling biographies and also diverse assessments of his life. His travels to more places in China than anyone before him have occasioned local accounts, regional pride, and the development of historical sites. Engagement with the Buddhist and Daoist traditions modified his Confucian beliefs and prompted complexity and depth in interpretations of his writings. The familial and literary relationship with father Su Xun 苏洵 and brother, Su Zhe 苏辙, known collectively as the Three Su, extends to works in conjunction with them and broadens the scope for comparison and critique. Scholarship, analysis, appreciation, and indebtedness form the received tradition of Su Shi and his writings, initially in Chinese sources, then in Japanese and Korean, and finally Western languages. Spurred by modern publications of his works and digital access, the establishment of an academic society to study his works, as well as international conferences, the field of Su Shi studies has expanded. Given the breadth and depth of Su Shi’s works with centuries of publications of appreciation and appraisal, Su Shi must be placed among the most important literary and cultural figures in Chinese history. Those who conduct research on Su Shi’s life and works have understood the sensibility of scholars who say that they began by stepping into a vast ocean but realized they could not reach the shore. The idea of a “Su hai 苏海 or Su Ocean” is thus both an invitation and an obstacle. For almost a thousand years, persons of every generation have contributed to our understanding and appreciation of Su Shi, his personality, ideas, and significance. Even so, there is space for further exploration of the life and works of this rare talent.

Life and Traditional Biography

Biographies of Su Shi are dependent on accounts of the political and social situation in Northern Song China, but they also provide insight into the challenges and achievements of the scholar-officials who helped shape that fascinating period of Chinese history. The context for Su’s life is found in a reliable history by scholars of the Song dynasty in Twitchett and Jakov Smith 2009. The official history of the Song era compiled in the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) is Tuo, et al. 1974 and includes Su’s official biography. Thus Su’s imperial examinations, government positions, conflict within the court of Emperor Shenzong (r. 1068–1086), accusations of offending the emperor, trial and exile, amnesty in 1100, and death are all a matter of historical record. Another source for the biographer is literary works. Su Shi, as did many scholar-officials of his era, frequently dated his writings and organized them chronologically. His friends and collators supplemented and arranged his works, publishing several editions during Su’s lifetime, as explicated by Liu 1988. Accounts of Su Shi’s life are a useful prologue to studies of the transmission of his writings and to explanations of shifting emphases. Many biographies of Su reveal the traditional Chinese idea that what an author wrote was prompted by what he encountered in life. Su’s writings thus became a dominant source for biographical accounts. Early types of biographies are the foundation for any study of Su Shi. Earliest is the funerary inscription (muzhiming 墓志铭) composed by his brother Su Zhe (Su 1990) that was placed in the grave and also printed. Su Shi’s biography in the official history of the Song is clearly derivative of the funerary inscription, but is a distinct genre with a different purpose. The chronological biography (nianpu 年谱), a genre that developed throughout the Song, is a discrete chronology supplemented with quotations from the subject’s works. More than one hundred nianpu have been composed for Su Shi over time; approximately thirty are extant. One of the earliest nianpu was constructed by Shi Su 施宿, whose father perhaps had a connection with Su Shi. It is now available for the modern researcher as Dongpo xiansheng nianpu 东坡先生年谱, Shi and Gu 1980. The most reliable modern edition is Kong 1998; it is based on the Qing era work by Wang Wen’gao that appeared in 1888 (Wang 1967) as supplemented by Wang 1969. Modern biographies, whether or not they reference these chronologies, are indebted to them.

  • Kong Fanli 孔凡礼. Su Shi Nianpu 苏轼年谱. 3 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998.

    Based primarily on the Wang Wen’gao chronology, Kong’s work takes into account numerous extant chronologies. Under the direction of the scholar-editor Liu Shangrong, this work draws also upon the prose and poetry of Su Shi. A judicious and comprehensive nianpu viewed as definitive by modern scholars who say that Kong Fanli’s work makes publication of an additional nianpu at this time superfluous.

  • Liu Shangrong 刘尚荣. Su Shi zhuzuo banben luncong 苏轼著作版本论丛. Chengdu, China: Ba Shu shushe, 1988.

    Expert analysis of important editions of Su’s writings including the influential qianji in “Song ke ji zhuben ‘Dongpo qianji’ kao” 宋刻几注本东坡前集考 (pp. 40–56). Liu traces the stages by which the qianji, which was to include all previous smaller editions, came to be organized, printed, and transmitted. Its existence is evidence of the early distribution of Su’s writings. Essays benefit classical researchers and textual critics.

  • Shi Yuanzhi 施元之and Gu Xi 顾禧. Shi Gu zhu Dongpo xiansheng shi 施顾註东坡先生诗. Edited by Zheng Qian 郑骞 and Yan Yiping. 严一萍. Taibei: Yiwen yinshuguan, 1980.

    Also published as Shi Gu zhu Su shi 施顾注苏诗. One of the reasons this work is important in the transmission of texts is that a folio was added to this poetry collection. The folio, Dongpo xiansheng nianpu 东坡先生年谱 by Shi Su 施宿, son of Shi Yuanzhi, constitutes one of the earliest nianpu. The book, lost in China and much later discovered in Japan, has been restored from fragments and the rediscovered text.

  • Su Zhe 苏辙. “Wang xiong Zizhan duanming muzhiming” 亡兄子瞻端明墓志铭. In Su Zhe ji 苏辙集. 4 vols. By Su Zhe, 1117–1128. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1990.

    Funerary inscription or muzhiming by younger brother for deceased Su Shi composed in a genre meant to be both accurate and laudatory. This is the earliest comprehensive account of Su’s life. The inscription also includes listing of then extant works by Su Shi. An essential starting point for research.

  • Tuo Tuo 脱脱, et al. Song shi 宋史. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974.

    Official biography of Su Shi in standard dynastic history (juan 338) relies heavily on Su Zhe’s funerary inscription for Su Shi. Additional information from official historical documents is evident. A bibliography of then extant works provides data for studies of the transmission of texts.

  • Twitchett, Denis, and Paul Jakov Smith, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 5, Part One: The Sung Dynasty and Its Precursors, 907–1279. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    An authoritative source for history of the period. Important for contextualizing Su Shi’s life during the reigns of Emperors Renzong, Yingzong, Shenzong, Zhezong, and Huizong, that is, 1040–1126. Provides analysis of Northern Song society for students of history and confirms validity of biographical information regarding Su Shi for researchers.

  • Wang Wen’gao 王文诰. Su Wenzhonggong shi bianzhu jicheng 苏文忠公诗编註集成. 6 vols. Reprint. Taibei: Xuesheng shuju, 1967.

    Originally published in 1888. In conjunction with his edition of Su Shi’s poetry, Wang (b. 1764) drew on centuries of materials and the evidential scholarship of the Qing dynasty to compose a highly respected chronology. The complete edition has forty-six juan of annotated poetry; the chronology of Su Shi’s life and works, biannian zong’an 编年縂案, is in forty-five juan.

  • Wang Baozhen 王保珍. Zengbu Su Dongpo nianpu huizheng 增补苏东坡年谱会证. Taibei: Taiwan daxue, 1969.

    Wang corrected and supplemented the chronology presented by Wang Wen’gao by using material from the edition organized by Shi Yuanzhi and Gu Xi that included the Shi Su nianpu published in China during the Southern Song. After the Shi-Gu edition was discovered in Japan and made available for researchers in 1957, Wang was able to rectify and amend Wang Wen’gao’s Qing era nianpu.

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