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A mind of the times

By Wang Kaihao | China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-22 08:20
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Zhiping Tie, among Su Shi's representative works, is on display at an exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In Zhiping Tie, a letter Su wrote to a monk in his hometown in Sichuan province, he emotionally recalls the memory of several tombs and asks the monk to take good care of them. The exquisite writing makes the letter a key calligraphy work from Su's early age.

During his difficult days in Huangzhou, Su frequently exchanged letters with his old friend, Chen Zao, who lived nearby.

Two letters Su wrote are juxtaposed at the exhibition. One reveals his excitement about a proposed meeting at the beginning of a new year. The other expresses his condolences for Chen's brother.

Both were written within one year. In 1964, they were mounted on the same paper, probably to preserve them.

"No matter how great Su was, he wasn't isolated from the surrounding environment," Yu explains.

"That extraordinary time centered him. And Su was a legend among his literati peers."

The exhibits reveal Su's star-studded social network, including his most famous student, calligrapher Huang Tingjian, versatile literati Mi Fu and Ouyang Xiu, painter Li Gonglin and a long list of other writers, calligraphers and painters.

For example, Junyi, which was written by Huang, is exhibited. It's one of Huang's two surviving works that mention Su's name.

Li painted Su's portrait in his later years. A Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) facsimile of Li's work is also on display. It depicts Su wearing a bamboo rain hat and clogs. Around that time, Su confronted an even bigger setback and was banished to Hainan Island.

"He was on the way to a friend's home but encountered heavy rain," Yu says.

"He had to borrow the hat and clogs from local farmers, and people laughed at him. Even so, he remained calm and optimistic toward life. Consequently, it later became a classical portrayal of Su's image."

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