Contour Plowing on East Slope: A New Reading of Su Shi
Pease, Jonathan, The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Michael Fuller has studied how the poetic voice of Su Shi (1037-1101) evolved from youth through early middle age, attaining its well-known mature form during Su's exile at Huangzhou in his late forties. The detail and emphasis on literary theory of Fuller's book may help raise Su Shi studies in the West to a new sophistication. Some of the book's limitations are deliberate: it discusses only shi, not ci, and does not study the poet's later works. Other limitations are symptomatic of many new Western studies in Chinese literature: translations that are accurate but hard to follow, overly theoretical analysis that distorts some poems' contents, and occasional attribution of a harshness or violence to classical voices that is misleading and probably not authentic.
1. SEEKING VOICES
For those of us who did not live in the Song, it is probably easier to understand Song paintings than Song poems. A sensitive person with no sinological background, thinking entirely in English, can still develop a feel for Song paintings-or porcelain or architecture-distinguish them from those of the Tang or Ming, and begin to feel subtleties of individual style. Specialists can do far more. But with Song poetry, Western scholars are only now edging toward a search for those elusive elements that combine to make poetic voices." And this exploration is still engulfed by the need to continue with sinology's original business: deciphering texts and reassembling events. An enormous amount of this basic work is necessary even to read classical comments about poems with any intelligence, to say nothing of reading the poems themselves or producing analyses of one's own. Half-visible behind a screen of language, their origins and uses by no means as clear as those ink-painted fishing streams or celadon brush-washers, Song-dynasty poems simply will not project their voices to an unprepared reader, even in Chinese, and not to any reader in translation.
Along with further philological research, we also need to gain a better grasp of broad trends before presuming to guess how particular writers produced particular poems and how they were first read. We still have much to learn about the entire Song before we can truly probe for the voice of such a complicated writer as Su Shi M (1037-1 101). But it is useful to study Su as an individual even at this stage. Ultimately, it may be the only way to study him. His style and thought were highly individual; his individualism, and the ways he voiced it, have woven themselves so thoroughly into the tradition that by now he embodies the essence of an age into which he may not have fit particularly well while he was alive.
Michael Fuller has made valiant progress at recovering parts of Su Shi's voice. Any Western scholar of this period would be wise to look through Fuller's book carefully. With its annotated translations of 103 of Su's poems and twenty-one by other writers, it shows how Su Shi's poetic approaches evolved from his youth into their mature form during his Huangzhou exile. Annotations are accurately written, Chinese characters copious, misprints few, and each poem is followed by an analysis that filters nine centuries of Chinese and Japanese commentary through a matrix of modern critical methods. This represents a leap for Su Shi's image in English, from the "Gay Genius" born out of hoary legend, directly to an elusive, cerebral, perhaps slightly de-constructed Su of paper and ink. (However, we should not forget the understated, big-hearted Su described by Yoshikawa, whose introduction to Su remains the best available in English: Kojiro Yoshikawa, trans. by Burton Watson, An Introduction to Sung Poetry [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 19671].) Fuller's book does not provide the final word on Su, nor will any book about this man who took flowing water as a leitmotif and found it pointless to try to identify "Mount Lu's true face." Still, Fuller's masses of data and opinions should help propel Western discussions about Su Shi closer toward the sophistication of the best Chinese commentators. …