Who Was Su Shi?

Who was Su Shi, and why is he so revered within Chinese culture? Art critic Alastair Sooke and Christie’s specialist Sophia Zhou look at the life and times of this giant of Chinese culture, and reflect on his revolutionary ideas about what painting could be.

‘During the Song dynasty, a period of unsurpassed refinement in the arts in China, Su Shi had a brilliant and staggeringly varied career,’ explains art critic Alastair Sooke. A poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist, Su Shi was the pre-eminent scholar of the Song dynasty. ‘He was so prolific in so many different fields that it is very tempting to think of him as a proto-Renaissance man,’ says Sooke, ‘even though he was born four centuries before Leonardo.’

In order to appreciate Su Shi’s pre-eminent place within Chinese culture, it is important to understand the period and society in which he lived. The Song dynasty (960-1279) was a key turning point in Chinese history — a period that witnessed an explosion in population, significant increases in the empire’s economic capacity and power, and rising levels of education. ‘The Song dynasty was also the peak of artistic achievement in the history of Chinese art,’ points out Chinese Paintings specialist Sophia Zhou.