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Imagine a land run by. . . poets

It sounds hard to believe, but civil service applicants in China had to write actual literature to win top jobs, becoming “jinshi” – a class of writer-administrators who advised the emperor. (Business people were ranked low on the ladder.) For centuries, it worked well – but at other times, the bureaucratic need for order and the poetic need to speak the truth clashed, as in the life of Su Shi. Emily Zhou reports.

IMAGINE A LAND WHERE the most respected of job of all was… poet.

Sounds hard to imagine? Travel back with us ten centuries to Kaifeng, the capital city of China, the most powerful country in the world at that time.

There we meet a teenage boy called Su Shi (pronounced Soo Shrr). This true story begins at a time when he was 19 years old, and about to do his civil service exams. Nineteen was considered mature in those days: Su had already been married for two years at the time.


Now it is scarcely possible for modern people to imagine how difficult it was for scholars to enter officialdom in ancient China. Many applicants spent more than two decades studying before taking the Imperial Examination (科舉考試), and you needed to pass it to get into government, no matter how well connected your family background was.  

Contrary to western myth, diligence in memorizing facts was never the key to ultimate success in China. A candidate could not get through to the top levels simply by giving correct answers to the questions in the exam. His answer paper also had to qualify as literature.

That meant that you had to be something of a poet, dazzling the examiners with your literary skills.

Su Shi was one who did that. In the year AD 1057, he won the highest placing for his work and became a jinshi – a poet-scholar qualified to join the ruling group of advisors to the king, sometimes known as the literati.

By the age of 22, he seemed to be well-placed for a long and happy career as an advisor to the rulers.


But it was not to be. Perhaps his unusual skills made other officials feel threatened by him. But whatever the reason, Su Shi regularly got into trouble with the establishment loyalists. In 1071, he stood in opposition to the desires of a mainstream political faction headed by officials working under a powerful man named Wang Anshi (王安石).

The officials decided that they wanted him out of the way. How to get rid of a popular person whose skill was words? You banished him to far-off places, where literary skills had no merit and no one powerful could hear his words anyway. Su was banished to be administrator in a place called Xuzhou (徐州), in modern-day Jiangsu Province.

Portrait of Su Shi by Zhao Meng


No sooner did he settle down there, than the city suffered from a huge flood. The waters surged to a level of eight and half meters (28 feet) high and nearly overwhelmed the ramparts. Looking at many wealthy families hurrying to escape from the city, Su realized that the city would be abandoned.

Here was an opportunity to use his talent with words. He built a hut for himself on top of the city wall so that he could personally monitor the movement of the waters, and from that vantage point, spoke persuasively, managing to get influential residents to stay in the city, and succeeded in preventing mass panic.

It will be all right, he had told them—and then he had to make it so. He realized that in a time of public disaster, no one needed literati-administrators; they needed rescuers. Su carried heavy sandbags on his shoulder and piled them on the bank to protect against the flood.

People noticed the administrator, sent from the capital, doing this urgent practical work, and joined him. After seventy days of effort, the water was gone, sandbank walls had been built, and it became clear that Xuzhou City was going to survive.

In some tellings of this tale, the story ends with all the citizens slaughtering their domesticated pigs in gratitude for Su’s brave rescue—animals which he then cooked for them using a famous secret recipe. But most scholars say that part of the story can’t be true, because his skill in cooking developed during his next banishment, to a different location—yes, it all happened again.


In 1079, poet Su Shi was back with his literati friends in the capital city – but he was in trouble again. He had been arrested due to an important but emotional letter he had addressed to the throne and sentenced to spent 103 days in jail followed by execution.

Fortunately, he was released thanks to a policy left by an earlier emperor which said that senior civil officials could be pardoned from the death penalty. Instead, he was punished by being sent away again. This time his destination was Huangzhou (黃州), modern-day Huanggang in Hubei Province.

You’d think anyone would be devastated after going through such a series of disasters in life.

But Su soon bounced back. In his new home, he set to work ploughing a piece of land on a hill in the east of Huangzhou, an address he adopted as a nickname and pen name: “Dongpo”, meaning east hill.


With little administrative work to do, Su had a lot of spare time to do other things—including working on his cookery skills.

A 1743 depiction of Su Shi.

One of the stories about him says that one day he put some chunks of fatty pork into a pot to simmer, and then started a long and complex chess game with a visitor – forgetting entirely about the food.

He was reminded of it when a delightful aroma drifted over to where he sat. The result was a flavorful, slow-cooked pork, which became known as dongpo pork 東坡肉, and can still be found in Chinese restaurants around the world.

After being banished, the minister intended to be a gastronome

Looking back over the bleak passage survived,

The return in time

Shall not be affected by windswept rain or shine.

                     — “Lyrics to the Melody of a Pacified Storm” (定風波)

Over a long life, Su had written poems, essays, and travel writing, like other members of the literati. Unlike most of them, he had also written a food journal. In it, we find the recipe for dongpo pork.

Dongpo Pork. Image by superturtle/Flickr

The dish was influenced by the cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu (江浙菜). You cut a big piece of pork into several five-centimeter cubes and place some sliced ginger and green onion at the bottom of a clay pot. Then you put the pork cubes into the pot, skin side down. You add Shaoxing yellow wine, soy sauce and crystal sugar to the pot till the ingredients cover the pork. After one hour of stewing on a low fire, the dish is ready.


Su realized that writers and politicians thought differently. And that was on his mind when he wrote a poem about his child, expressing a rare streak of cynical humor.

Families, when a child is born, want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence
having wrecked my whole life,
only hope the baby will prove
ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
by becoming a cabinet minister.

After a life spent in and out of trouble, Su Shi received a pardon for his previous offences in 1100 and was given a new post, to start the following year in the city of Chengdu. But on the long journey there, he died at the age of 64.

Bureaucratic officials were probably glad to see the back of him.

But the people were not. They remembered all he had done for them, both in his work as a city administrator and in the stream of songs and poems and artworks that he had created. He had become a celebrity and there was a rush to collect his poems, calligraphy, art works and other writings. He went down in history as one of the best-remembered people in the land for the entire century.

The writings from East Hill are still celebrated today—and in restaurants around the world, traditional menus feature dongpo pork.

Image at the top by doctoroftcm/ Wikimedia Commons

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