NEW YORK - Of all Chinese historical figures, Su Dongpo (a.k.a. Su Shi; 1037-1101) is the one that I would be most eager to meet. But it is as good as it gets if you are lucky enough to witness, in your lifetime, a piece of his calligraphy coming to the market, as the legendary Farewell Letter to Gongfu (Gongfu Tie) that will be included in Sotheby’s upcoming Fine Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy sale in New York.
Su Dongpo’s Farewell Letter to Gongfu (Gongfu Tie), calligraphy, ink on paper, hanging scroll.
You were even luckier if you were the recipient of the Gongfu Tie: Guo Xiangzheng (1035-1113), who also went by his literary name Gongfu. Su was, by all accounts, a mensch, and a man of versatile talents and great delights, whether in exile or in court. I cannot image how much fun one could have derived from being around him. Ming Dynasty scholar Wang Shizhen (1526-1590) compiled The Book of Wit, which included many embellished legends about Su’s humorous remarks and naughty acts. According to Wang’s account, while in Hangzhou, Guo Gongfu showed Su Dongpo the poems that he composed. After he recited his poems aloud, Guo asked Su to grade his poems. “Ten points,” Su replied. Guo was beside himself, asking Su to explain. Su said, “Seven points go to your recitation, and three points go to your poems. Aren’t they adding up to a total of ten?”
A view of the West Lake in Hangzhou, located 112 miles from Shanghai. Hangzhou is the political, cultural and economic capital of Zhejiang province, known for its refined longjing tea and delicate cuisine. Su Dongpo famously compared West Lake to Xishi, the most beautiful woman in ancient China. Photo courtesy of Zhang Liaoyuan.
Some Chinese commentators have quoted this story to illustrate the pedagogical importance of vocal recitation. I think the friendship between Su and Guo must have been such that while Guo was fishing for a compliment on his poetic accomplishments, he did not appear to have taken Su’s tease as a slight.
This “Su Causeway,” one of the top ten views at the West Lake, was built in 1089 out of the mud recycled from the dredging of the West Lake to clear the silt-up, which Su oversaw while he was the Hangzhou Governor. Photo courtesy of Zhang Liaoyuan.
Guo was by no means a Mickey Mouse poet: one year Su’s senior, Guo was a child prodigy who at the tender age of 19 successfully passed the highest imperial examination which, before Wang Anshi’s (1021-1086) political reform, placed a great emphasis on poetic compositions. At the age of 20, Guo was already an acclaimed poet. Su garnered the same honor at the imperial exam at the age of 22, and would later eclipse Guo in terms of literary reputation. But Guo was clearly someone to be reckoned with – his poetic style won him a moniker: “Li Bo (701-762) Reborn.” Both poets have written memorable poems dedicated to each other.
A statute of Su Dongpo gracing the West Lake. Photo courtesy of Zhang Liaoyuan.
At the prime of their political careers, Su and Guo found themselves in the midst of one of the most acute political ideological struggles in Chinese history. During the period from 1068 to 1100, each of the reformist camps, headed by Wang Anshi and the conservationist faction-led by Sima Guang (1019-1086), took turns carrying out its agenda, depending on where the political wind blew.
Su Dongpo Memorial Museum near the West Lake, Hangzhou. Photo courtesy of Zhang Liaoyuan.
Nominally Su was a conservative, whereas Guo was a reformist; however, they each had experienced exiles and sometimes landed in jail, even when their own respective “party” was in power. Both were known for speaking their minds and thinking beyond the party allegiance.
Weng Fanggang (1733-1818), Qing Dynasty scholar-connoisseur extraordinaire, convincingly established in one of his colophons accompanying the Gongfu Tie that Su wrote the piece to Guo during the former’s stint as Controller-General in Hangzhou, most likely around 1071 or 1072 when Su was 36 or 37 years old.
An interior view of the Su Dongpo Memorial Museum. Photo courtesy of Zhang Liaoyuan.
Su went to Hangzhou in 1071 of his own volition in order to avoid the political headwind from the zealous reformists. At that time, Guo’s official title was a Court Gentleman Consultant, which was how Su referred to him in the Gongfu Tie.
(left) Portrait of Su Dongpo, included as leaf no. 1 in the Two Odes on the Red Cliff, by Yuan Master Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), album of 21 leaves, ink on paper. Photo courtesy of © National Palace Museum, Taipei. (right) Su Dongpo, Letter to Mr. Guo Yanping (Yanping Guojun Tie), calligraphy, ink on paper, in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Photo courtesy of © National Palace Museum, Taipei.
At the National Palace Museum in Taipei, there are two pieces of Su’s calligraphy dated around 1071. Many commentators have surmised that the unidentified recipient of Su’s Letter to Mr. Guo Yanping (Yanping Guojun Tie), one of these two pieces, to be Guo Gongfu. Yanping Guojun Tie, written in the style of running script (or semi-cursive script), conveys a free flowing energy. Gongfu Tie, written in the style of bafen clerical script, is robust and graceful, attesting to a friendship based on a spiritual affinity that triumphed over diverging political ideologies.
Fine Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy
September 19, 2013
September 13-18, 2013 Exhibition
Sotheby's New York
Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China.