Su Shih is probably perhaps best known to Western audiences by his pen name, Su Tung-p'o. Born in 1036, five emperors came to the throne during his lifetime. Eleventh-century China, however, was a period of great political instability. The bitter rivalry between revisionist and conservative factions at court made a political career precarious. For Su Shih, known for his sharp wit and stubborn personality, it was even more difficult. However, the ups and downs of his life and career provided constant inspiration in his art and writing, for which he is so highly regarded by later generations.
Su's tumultuous career began around 1079, when he wrote a satirical poem on the New Policies promoted by Prime Minister Wang An-shih, who was infuriated and had Su arrested. Su served time in jail and was later released, but the following year he was banished to Huang-chou in the southern hinterlands. This proved to be a major turning point in his life. Beforehand, Su was a free and spirited personality, and his poetry was full of insight and energy. However, having barely escaped with his life and being banished to the harsh region of the south, he began to reflect on the beauty of nature and the meaning of life. In exile, he enjoyed the simple pleasures of farming and writing, taking joy in what life had to offer. In fact, many of his most popular works were done at the time. Though Su was later pardoned, he was never far from controversy. Even as an old man, he was banished to the furthest reaches of the land--Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The experience, however, only further enlightened him. Though pardoned once again, this time he did not make it back to court and died on the trip north.
It has now been almost 900 years since Su Shih passed away in 1101. Although his writings were once blacklisted, even destroyed, his genius could not be repressed. His poetry and writing have been reprinted, studied, and enjoyed by generations since. In this special exhibition, the National Palace Museum presents Su's literary output along with calligraphy, painting, and writing related to him. They serve to commemorate one of the greatest figures in the Sung dynasty as well as in Chinese history and art.