Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo (formerly Su Tung-p’o), lived from 1036 to 1101, through the turbulent years of the northern Sung dynasty. Hugely gifted, he excelled at calligraphy and painting, as well as prose and poetry. When it came to government policy, he was outspoken to a fault – one must spit out a fly in one’s food, as he remarked to close friends. This frankness, seen in his prose as well as his poetry, infuriated political rivals at court when their economic reforms proved disastrous. They tried to have him executed, but eventually he was exiled to an inaccessible part of China. Su’s troubles continued posthumously: soon after his death, he was blacklisted, his writings banned. Then, a few years later, he was reinstated, and given the posthumous title of ‘Literary Patriotic Duke’. Plus ça change.
The first two poems were written when Su was leaving for his first official posting, just after he had said goodbye to his brother Su Ziyou – his lifelong close friend and supporter. The second was written soon after the first, and they should be seen as a kind of sequence. The second poem, in the original, contains a note by Su himself that they had had to transfer to donkeys when their horses died on them en route. The third poem, written when Su was a provincial governor, goes some way to explaining why he was loved by many people during his lifetime. Unlike him, many governors in his day had an excess of dignity but little compassion for the much-taxed commoners. The fourth poem was written during the period of exile mentioned above.