Home Chinese Culture Su Shi, the Ancient Poet Who Put the People First

Su Shi, the Ancient Poet Who Put the People First

One of the greatest literati of ancient China, the ancient poet Su Shi (蘇軾), also known by his alias Su Dongpo (蘇東坡), was not just an accomplished man of letters, but also a dedicated and decisive leader. 

Su Shi (pronounced roughly “soo shrr,” not “sushi”), lived in the 1000s, during the Northern Song Dynasty. His poetry, calligraphy, prose, painting, and other works have a unique place in the long river of Chinese culture.

In addition to his extraordinary literary achievements, Su Shi was a wise and decisive imperial official. He often took it upon himself to aid the people in times of hardship or disaster. 

An example of this is when Shu Shi had just been transferred to the city of Xuzhou, in eastern China. Floods from the Yellow River were approaching the city, having breached the riverbank in Cao village. Facing the flood, Su Shi built a small thatched hut atop the Xuzhou city walls so that he could better observe the disaster and make decisions. 

Su Shi said: “The survival or demise of the country depends on its morality, not its strength. The longevity of a dynasty lies in the respect they have for their traditions, not whether they are wealthy or poor.”

The water rose higher and higher up the city walls, and it soon seemed they might collapse at any moment. The wealthy residents of Xuzhou hurried to leave the city. But Su Shi said: “If the rich leave, it will demoralize everyone in the city. As long as I am here, the flood will never destroy the city wall.” Seeing that the prefect did not waver, the wealthy returned to Xuzhou. 

Su Shi then called up the army. When he arrived at the military base, he told the commanding officer: “The overflowing river is about to bring down the city wall. The situation is urgent. Although you are imperial guards [responsible for national, rather than local defense], please do your best to help.” 

The officer responded: “The flood is coming, but not even the prefect is afraid, so what do we have to be afraid of?” And so the generals led the soldiers out with scoops and shovels to build dikes and erect dams.

Su Shi said, “The survival or demise of the country depends on its morality, not its strength.” (Image: Public Domain) ancient chinese painting of a hut in the mountains with mist
Su Shi said: ‘The survival or demise of the country depends on its morality, not its strength.’ (Image: Public Domain)

Living out of his little hut, Su Shi directed flood control efforts day and night, never returning to his main residence even when passing by as part of his work. Torrential rain poured down constantly, and at times, the city wall barely remained above water. 

Under the example set by Su Shi’s leadership, the army and the people of Xuzhou worked together, finally diverting the flood and saving the city. 

When the floods died down, Su Shi attended to unrest throughout Xuzhou and had wooden revetments erected to help mitigate future flooding. 

Enforcing discipline and the law

Su Shi also applied the law strictly to enforce fallen standards of military discipline. After Emperor Zhezong assumed the throne in 1085, Su Shi requested a job as magistrate and was sent to Dingzhou, an area on the border with the Khitan Liao empire. 

In Dingzhou, both civil and military officials were corrupt; the law was nonexistent. The military academy cannibalized the soldiers’ rations and bonuses, the soldiers were arrogant and disobedient, and the old magistrate did not dare to do anything to bring them into line.

Upon his arrival in the region, Su Shi took a series of measures to rectify this sorry state of affairs. He appointed corrupt officers to new positions where they would have fewer opportunities to commit their malfeasance, renovated the barracks, and cleaned up the military culture. He prohibited drinking and gambling, saw to it that the clothes and rations for the sergeants would not be seized, and used various other means to restrain the soldiers’ conduct. 

However, those in the military establishment were frightened by Su’s actions. A number of soldiers raised complaints about their commander. The unrest caused concern among the officers. Su Shi said: “Let me handle this personally. Letting you file a complaint would cause chaos in the army.” The commander was immediately published with exile, and the atmosphere in the military returned to normal. 

Then came time for the spring review of the troops. However, the military bureaucrats had long let the ranking protocol fall into disuse. Seeing their organization in this state, Su Shi ordered that the old ranks be reinstated, and that the inspection ceremony be carried out with all officers and men wearing uniforms according to the proper hierarchy. 

A poet of the people

Su Shi was a man of the people and took hardship with joy. Although he was frequently reassigned to new locations during his career, he never complained and fulfilled his duties the best he could no matter where he was. 

While stationed in Hangzhou of eastern China, the city faced a three-in-one disaster: drought, famine, and plague at the same time. 

Su Shi restored and improved on the infrastructure around the West Lake (Xi Hu), bringing prosperity to the people of Hangzhou.
Su Shi restored and improved on the infrastructure around the West Lake (Xi Hu), bringing prosperity to the people of Hangzhou. (Image: Vladimir K via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Su Shi allocated 2,000 taels of silver from the public surplus and allocated 50 taels of his own gold to set up a charity hospital, which treated the impoverished and needy. In the spring of the next year, he sold rice at a reduced price, had porridge and soup prepared, and sent officials to take doctors to the neighborhood to treat the sick. Many people’s lives were saved through this timely aid and the plague receded. 

Hangzhou first became a metropolis in the Song Dynasty. But prior to this time, the area was considered remote and backward. Because of its coastal location, the spring water was turbid and saline. Starting in the Tang Dynasty (the empire preceding the Song), local administrators had dug wells and drawn fresh water by dredging the West Lake. The efforts of Bai Juyi, an official and also a renowned poet of the Tang, to link the lake with the Grand Canal had paid off and allowed agriculture in the area to thrive. 

However, constant dredging of the West Lake was necessary to maintain the supply of water for irrigation. After the chaos following the end of the Tang empire, there was no one to do the dredging. Both the lake itself and the connecting canals were covered in aquatic weeds and mud. The wells were also clogged due to lack of maintenance. 

Knowing that the lake was the key to solving the drought and by extension end hunger, Su Shi had two canals dug and a 12-mile-long embankment constructed to retain the lakewater and increase its depth. The wells were re-drilled, and the West Lake embankment also served as a convenient avenue for traffic. It became known as the “Lord Su Causeway.” 

The weeds were eradicated by a simple and productive solution: Su Shi had farmers cultivate water chestnuts on the surface of the lake, blocking sunlight from the underwater weeds and halting their growth. 

While an effective leader who knew how to get things done, Su Shi was not adept at political maneuvering and typically lost out amidst the intrigues of the Song imperial court. The great poet was exiled from Hangzhou. 

But 20 years later, when Su Shi returned to the city, he found that the people of Hangzhou had his portrait hanging in almost every home. Some people built a shrine to honor his deeds and show their gratitude. Su remained modest, saying that he had merely done his job as a magistrate. 

Su Shi said: “The survival or demise of the country depends on its morality, not its strength. The longevity of a dynasty lies in the respect they have for their traditions, not whether they are wealthy or poor.” 

Throughout his life, Su Shi met with setbacks and political misfortune, but never gave up on the principles of true and good governance. He validated these principles with his actions, and expressed them with his verses. 

Translation by Lucile Guo

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  • Leo Timm is a writer and translator focusing on China's traditional culture, international relations, and its national polity. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.

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