Su Dongpo: The Vegetarian Poet

“In my dreams, I am a deer running to the land of bliss. In reality, I am a chicken to be thrown to a boiling pot”. 

Su Shi (1037-1101) wrote these lines when, facing deadly serious accusations, he was interrogated in prison. A life-changing experience, it even made the poet reconsider his diet! But how did a statesman of national prominence, once called by Emperor Renzong (1010-1063) a future grand councilor, get himself into this situation?

By Ilina Tatiana (edited by Nic Doering)

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Portrait of Su Shi, the frontispiece in the Album of Both Odes on the Red Cliff. 1301. Ink on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

What made Su famous, his verse, nearly killed him! He disagreed with the empire’s new political course, the New Policies reforms, and he couldn’t help protesting through writing and poetry, otherwise the unsaid would ‘stick in his throat’ like ‘a morsel of food.’ Introduced from 1069 through the 70s by Wang Anshi (1021-1086), the reforms intended to increase the revenues of the empire, exhausted by wars and bureaucracy, improve its governance and stimulate the private economy. While some reforms, such as the replacement of government service with tax, were successful, others, like a program of public rural loans, were not. 

Unidentified Artist. Calligraphy by Osen Keisan (Japanese, 1429–1493). Su Dongpo in a Borrowed Hat. Late 15th century. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. 77 × 19 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Su Shi not only criticized the reforms, but also accused Wang Anshi of silencing the opposition, thus hampering any evaluation of the policies and destroying ideological pluralism, the pride of the Song. In revenge, Wang Anshi fabricated charges against the poet, making Su leave the capital to serve in eastern provinces. There, he continued writing protest poetry, deriding the reforms. He gave an example of a farmer who waited for a loan for half the year only to spend it ‘in a flash’ in government wine shops. He compared the court to frogs and insects, and the reformers to inferior scrub tea, ‘with a sour aftertaste.’ Eventually, Su was arrested and charged with discrediting the court and the emperor, and exiled to Huangzhou in Hubei province to hold a minor post with neither duties nor salary.

There he lived on an abandoned plot of land outside the city called East Slope (Dongpo), from which he took his literary name. Su planted rice and reassessed his past views (‘knots on wood, prized by people, and yet flaws in the substances in which they appear’) and habits, including food. ‘ Having experienced such worry and danger myself, when I felt just like a fowl waiting in the kitchen, I can no longer bear to cause any living creature to suffer immeasurable fright and pain simply to please my plate.’ Struggling to completely quit meat, he banned killing animals at home and cooked only those that died naturally. When presented with his favorite crabs and clams, he would throw them back to the river. Su even wrote poetry to persuade his friends to stop killing for food, for example in a cycle of five verses titled Qiting (1081), opening with the line:

‘My heart aches for the clam in the basket, its shells shut tight guard the remnants of its juices’.

He might not be happy that a well-known pork dish is now named after him (for unknown reasons)!

Bokudo Sojun (Japanese, 1373–1459). Su Shi Riding a Donkey, early 15th century Japan, Muromachi period (1392–1573). Hanging scroll; ink and gold on paper.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015.

Su Shi’s compassion was not only towards animals. In Huangzhou, once he learned that local peasants were killing unwanted babies, he organized donations to help poor families with newborns, saving around one hundred lives in a year. When he was later exiled to Huizhou, he built bridges, distributed medicine and took part in many other initiatives, which he explained as part of the pursuit of enlightenment, referring to Buddhism. Its influence on Su’s principles of compassion, selflessness, and social engagement is visible in his poems about bodhisattvas and monks.

“The bodhisattva has a thousand arms and eyes…
When things arrive, the mind meets them…
In whatever way it is right to respond
The bodhisattva always does so correctly”.

We would love to hear your thoughts and insights on this piece, or anything concerning traditional Chinese culture, in the comments below! 

Author Bio:

Ms. Ilina Tatiana is an art lover and culture hunter.

Image at top is a detail from: Su Shi (1037-1101). The Cold Food Observance, fragment. Song. Handscroll, ink on paper. 34.2 x 199.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei.


Letters to Ziyou From Prison, Letter Two (1079). 李一冰 Li Yibing, 苏东坡新传 / Su Dongpo xinzhuan. 成都: 四川人民出版社(Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 2020), 280

Ronald C. Egan, Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi. (Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 39. Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1994), 52

Egan, 47

Ibid., 27-38

Ibid., 36-38

Ibid., 33

Ibid., 40, 51, 45

Ibid., 210-212 

Ibid., 52 

Li Yibing, 337 

Ibid., 338

Ibid., 342

Egan, 136

Ibid., 151

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