66. Su Shi Boat to the Red Cliffs – Part I, Part II of Chibi Fu, 1082

Edition of 20 copies
5” x 5” tray
6” x 2” sushi boat
1” x 1 ¼” diameter scrolls closed
1” x 36” scrolls open
6” x 2”oars/chopsticks/cinnamon stick closed
6” x 8”oars/chopsticks/cinnamon stick opened

It is odd to use a Japanese food to convey one of the most famous Chinese literary works in history, but it helps to remember the author’s name. Su Shi (1036-1101), also known as Su Dongpo, was a renowned poet, artist and statesman from the Song Era (960-1279).  “At Red Cliffs”, written in exile in 1082,  is a two-part prose/poetry combo piece, or rhapsodic essay. I feel justified wrapping up my own prose poem commentary on Su Shi and the Red Cliffs, or Chibi Fu, in the homophonous Japanese food because this work has been illustrated on scrolls for the last nine centuries not only in China, but also in Japan. I learned of Red Cliffs, and subsequently its author, in a Japanese art history lesson, in which we looked at various depictions of this philosophical boat trip on the Yangtze River. I was especially taken by the description of Su Shi’s “snowy studio” on the Eastern Slope, or Dongpo, in Huangzhou, where he was exiled for offending government officials with his poetry.

However, in researching this titan of Chinese literature, calligraphy and painting, and reading  the translation of Red Cliffs I and II by Professor Robert Hegel of Washington University in St, Louis,  I realized my mental picture was incorrect. The devout Buddhist layman of the Eastern Slope might have had a wonderful studio, with great light, geomantically aligned, but he was not alone in the remote region. Apart from the locals, his wife and children were with him. She features in this famous work, as a helpful, wise and supportive person. Without her, there would be no second journey to the Red Cliffs, because she was the one who had secreted away some wine for him, knowing he would need it at some point. Without “snacks”, as the fish and wine are referred to, the three men couldn’t go off on their moonlit ride. It is clear how much his wife meant to him in the poem he wrote a decade after her death, “Jiang chengzi”. My previous studies of early Chinese religion and philosophy didn’t mention women very often, and rigid subservience appeared to be the rule of thumb. My cursory forays in East Asian art also didn’t frequently show women in the most positive light, if at all.  In an exploration of Su Shi and the Song Era, it is clear instead that there were a great number of Chinese women poets, and artists, and while they certainly came from the elite, happily they were not all courtesans. Su Shi’s parents and siblings, including two sisters, were all poets or essayists.

The little cinnamon-stick scroll represents the “cassia oar” of the boat in Su Shi’s Red Cliffs poem. Cassia is a cheap form of cinnamon. Part I of my prose poem is in the sushi roll with the faux fish eggs. The plain roll contains Part II, which discusses the importance of the moon. The text has been incised into paper, and rubbed with a hard beeswax crayon, in homage to the earliest editions of books in China, with rubbed text. The tiny scrolls with vellum “nori” covers, when unfurled, resemble cultivated landscapes, or the Yangtze River with cliffs or mountains beyond. Su Shi was poor in exile, but he fished, and thanks to a friend was able to purchase some land to cultivate rice and mulberry trees. The crudely scratched text on a black ground, difficult to read, is also a reference to oracle bones, the scapulae and turtle plastrons burned in divination rituals. The earliest examples of Chinese writing come from these artifacts.  Interpreting poetry may be likened to divination, especially in translation. I am grateful to those who study and translate works that they might be shared. Su Shi was purportedly a great cook,  inventing  recipes named after him. Accordingly, I dedicate this work to my talented husband, Gianni Figliomeni, creative with both food and art.

You may remove the origami  book-cloth boat from its mulberry lined box and put it into this scroll, with the bow and stern holding it open. The sushi may be placed in the boat, or arranged as desired.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the following assistants: Susanna Sprague, Linnea Blaurock, Emilia Figliomeni


Su Shi Boat to the Red Cliffs – Part I, Part II of Chibi Fu

Part I

In Tang and Song literature and art,
Calligraphy lives in rocks and trees,
Figures reside in calligraphic forms.
Illiterates must trust in the adepts
Trained to read literati art.

Ancient wisdom and surprising humor
Emerge from scholarly essays.
Is it possible Su Shi was humbled by the word fart,
Scribbled by a Zen monk over his fresh poem,
Jetting him across the river in outrage?

Women are particles in the landscape;
A wife and child in a wealthy man’s pavilion,
Concubines in partial views of rooms,
Immortal maidens in cave Paradise, offering peaches.
Sirens as portents to consider carefully.

Some scholar-artists were exiled
For their puns, or irony on salt laws.
Banished to remote areas,
They created works revered still,
In studios oriented and adorned
For auspicious harmony.

Exile was not solitary confinement;
Wives came along to facilitate.
The same was true of Su Shi,
Famed cook, farmer, statesman, poet and artist.

His own words invoke his wife,
In his most important work,
Creating her written record
Perhaps otherwise lost by biographers.

Although, he came from a family of poets,
Including two younger sisters,
And studied with his mother.

On the boat ride to the Red Cliffs,
It would appear there were only male friends
Drunkenly piled in the vessel,
Having philosophical discussions.
No courtesans?

Part II

In Part II of Chibi Fu,
Su Shi receives a gift of wine
His wife presciently stored
For a day he might need it.

Together, with the offer of fish
From a friend,
Three men have the requisites
For a second boat trip.

The full moon is cited on both outings,
A symbol of duality, of oneness, of woman,
Of perfect enlightenment,
Waxing and waning yet not changing.
We infer his wife stayed home.

A decade after her death,
In a poem of mourning,
Su Shi describes anguished moonlit nights
Which never fail to summon her presence
From the immortal realm.

How typical to envision the sage hermit,
Or enlightened  intellectual,
Penning brilliant insights in solitude.
Su Shi mastered the poets and artists
That came before him,
Making the knowledge new.

Part I depicts the illuminated.
Part II exposes foibles in the same man,
Who is not whole without others,
Who is not ready to abandon them,
And forge upward,
In the treacherous mountain Paradise,
Where immortality may be found
At the hands of tigers and leopards guarding it.

Thoughts are not clear,
Even for those who would rhapsodize
In scholarly retreats,
Gushing calligraphic wit and virtuosity.

That Su Shi chose to model himself thus

Is refreshing.

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