To a mind that is still, the entire universe surrenders. – Zhuangzi
Su Shi was ethically unyielding. The subtle political context of one of his poems caused him to be thrown into a dark prison cell for one hundred days. The hopelessness of his miserable condition changed the great genius forever. This terrifying experience further strengthened his resolve to refine his inner world through self-cultivation and reinvention. Su Shi was convinced that one’s lifespan was not determined by the environment but by how an individual mentally adapts to their fate. Su Shi was not content to just survive, his goal was to return home to his family.
Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”
For most of Su Shi’s life he had to remake himself in order to fit the location. Highly educated and talented scholar officials like Su Shi were sent to various posts around China as administrators. Su Shi was an astonishing intellect and he performed very well for the citizens wherever he was posted. In 1089, when he was governor of Hangzhou, he dredged the world-famous West Lake in order to provide water for irrigation and to clean up water-borne pestilence.
The West Lake’s Su Causeway was built from the soil. I used to wander over there when writing articles for the monthly magazine where I was editor. Choosing a shady bench, I would image the city when it was the Song Dynasty capital, and later when Marco Polo worked in the city. The city was the largest in the world from the 12th Century to the 14th. And Su Shi is one its most renowned former citizens. But none of those accomplishments mattered when the great genius was banished.
Su Shi did make another long-lasting impact on the city of Hangzhou. According to a local legend Su Shi, also one of China’s great ancient gourmets, created one of Hangzhou’s signature dishes – Dongpo Pork.
Although the two best restaurants in the city, Lou Wai Lou and Zhi Wei Guan, won’t reveal their secret recipes, this Dongpo Pork recipe is adapted from the one posted at the Su Dongpo Memorial Hall in Hangzhou.
3.5 pounds – fatty pork
The best ingredient for cooking Dongpo Pork is from the Jinhua pig. Jinhua pig have been one of China’s finest since the West Jin Dynasty (266-316).
1 cup – green onion
1 cup – white sugar
2 ½ cups – Shaoxing rice wine (a very famous wine)
¼ cup – ginger
¾ cup soy sauce
Wash the pork thoroughly before slicing into squares of about 3 – 4 inches per size. Boil the pork slices for five minutes. Insert a bamboo screen in a large earthenware pot. Place the pork with the fat side down onto the screen. Add (one at a time) the green onion, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine. Use some parchment paper between the lid and the pot. Place the earthenware pot on high heat. Reduce the heat to low once the liquids begin to boil. Test for tenderness. Once the pork is tender, skim off the fat. Place each piece of pork into a small clay pot, fat side up. Place the clay pots into a bamboo steamer. Heat to boiling and let steam for thirty minutes. Each pot of Dongpo pork is one serving. The glistening pork fat on top is the dishes signature look.
The Great Genius’ Final Reinvention
In banishment Su Shi kept active and wrote about a wide variety of topics. Scholar officials were supposed to serve the public, and he was given the title of Administrative Assistant without a salary. My wife read a couple articles that mentioned Su Shi had a well dug while he was banished to Hainan. As a highly refined scholar-artist Su Shi wanted to better the lives of the locals. He used his own money to dig a public well. He wanted to better the lives of his new neighbors, but little did we know he dug two wells.
Su Shi’s friend Zhang Zhong was the local military commander of Danzhou. He offered Su Shi a place to stay which didn’t sit well with the national government whose banishment of Su Shi was supposed to be a death sentence. Su Shi’s reputation had of course preceded him, and he was asked to teach, and a rich local man offered him a fine building for his classrooms. Su Shi, the imminent calligrapher wrote the inscription for one hall as the “Bringing Along Wine” hall. Su Shi and his son played Chinese chess with their friend Zhang Zhong and their life settled down for a time.
It was not long however before an official on an inspection tour demanded the removal of the banished poet-scholar from the government housing. So Su Shi was sent further inland to the small Li minority village of ZhengHe. It was there amongst the sugar palms Su Shi once again reinvented himself. Just as he had in his earlier exile when he adopted the name Dongpo Ju Shi The Hermit (or Novice) of the Eastern Slope, Su Shi would undergo a final transformation not written about widely. This was one of several discoveries we made that day.
On the way to his final posting in Danzhou, Hainan, Su Shi was 61 when he wrote “In this life, how will I ever return home? Looking all around, truly I have come to the end of the world.” As soon as he arrived in Hainan, Su Shi made arrangements for his death saying he wanted a coffin made and grave dug as soon as he arrived. He had believed to extend your life, you had to get attuned to the environment – “unplug your apertures”. As he arrived on the forsaken land of his banishment, the great genius began a path that would lead to even greater enlightenment than he could have imagined.
At the Dongpo Academy, they have stories of his life and the official guides say he lived there, but actually a visiting official did not like seeing the banished poet enjoying his life. Although tourism sources state he lived in the Dongpo Academy Su Shi was actually ran out of town by the punitive imperial officials who wished he would just conveniently die.
Later my wife and I worked to translate one of the displays in the Academy. It included a recipe for one of Su Shi’s famous wines. Su Shi was one of ancient China’s most famous gourmets. He was forever dabbling in the chemistry of wine making. During his exile he was able to make money for his daily living by selling wine. The great genius used wine to soothe his mind and fire his creativity. The display included the mortar which Su Shi used for making wine.
The following is our translation of Master Su Shi’s wine recipe and description. I do not endorse making this, or any other, wine recipe. I think it necessary to warn you at this point. Part of Su Shi’s legend is his experimentation with wine making and other natural sciences. But his son, said his father’s famous special occasion cinnamon wine gave everyone lā dù zi – diarrhea, which is a very useful word to learn. So, as they say, don’t try this at home.
新疆天门冬 Xin Jiang Tian Men Dong
Asparagus Neglectus Herb Winter Rice Wine
* This herb grows in central Asia. You could substitute a healthy herb alternative
Grind herb into paste
Pour off and drink the excess liquid
Add the thick paste to the rice and water
Seal in jar and let mixture ferment
The rice wine will taste sour at first, but let it ferment for a few months and it becomes more fragrant and flavorful.
The herb wine can be used for: cough, thirst, calm nerves to ease sleep, constipation, inflammation of organs, slow the progress of leukemia, longevity and to kill mosquito larva.
Beneath the wine recipe was the following poem written while he was in Hainan.
GengChen Year, January 12
The TianMenDong Wine is ripe
I taste it as I filter it
Then I am drunk
I wrote two poems
I uncovered the big jar next to my bed
The wine smells so good it is intoxicating
New Years is coming
It is time for drinking wine
The fragrance of the wine brings happiness with the New year
Wine makes the house smell wonderful
I lean on my “fire-wood” door
And see the vegetable garden
As the rain falls, the fragrant wine makes the whole garden foggy like a poem
Now I lean on the bed and feel like I am escaping into a dream.
But I know where I truly am
The wind from the east blows away my difficulties
In Zheng He Village Danzhou
My wife and I visited the village of ZhengHe where Su Dongpo actually lived amongst the local Li minority. The locals were quite excited and happy to tell us about Su Shi’s life in their village. Hong asked a group of older ladies who were sitting around a table cleaning vegetable the way to Su Shi’s well he dug for the locals. They argued among themselves, but we got the general directions and set off in search of Su Shi.
Chinese village alleys and walkways grow organically and as such there are few straight paths from A to B. Further along my wife asked a group of local schoolkids the way to Su Shi’s well, and they had no idea. A man stepped out of his door when he saw us standing there. We found out later he was a local historian, and he pointed us in the right direction. He seemed slightly peeved at the kids who did not seem to appreciate their local history.
In a couple minutes we stood before the ancient well. A local Li minority woman was washing her clothes with water from the well, and she offered us a bucket to refresh ourselves. My wife gleefully dipped the bucket down into water. We happily washed our hands in water from the great poet’s public well. I then anointed my head and felt reinvigorated.
The Li ladies at Su Shi’s public well told us the locals had protected Su Shi’s former home site with a brick wall out of respect for the great man who had once been their neighbor. This was a revelation to us. Once again, my wife asked the general direction, and we headed off in search of Su Shi’s footsteps.
Backtracking down the narrow road the local historian stopped us and told my wife about the once grand Confucian Temple which had been demolished. He wanted us to see one of the temple’s sacred stones which lay at the bottom of a trash heap. Kicking aside miscellaneous garbage he grabbed a wooden block and brushed aside the filth.
Pouring water on the stone, the historian revealed the lines of finely carved Chinese characters running along the massive stone. He said the local people could not move the stone because of laws governing antiquities, so they petitioned to have the stone and others reinstalled and protected. He said the large buried stone had been used decades previously as a bridge across the nearby stream. When a new cement bridge and road were built the glorious remnant had then been discarded by the side of the narrow village road where it ignominiously remained for decades.
I was lamentably reminded again of the sweeping scope of Chinese history where centuries were hammered to dust by the victors. I ran my hand over the moldering nearby wall tracing along the shadows of once wondrous incised celestial motifs. We took several photos, and the historian thanked us several times for photographing the temple stones. Later, my wife, her brother and several friends would try to read and translate the ancient inscriptions.
When my wife asked me which way I thought we should go. I quoted from Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Just after that Hong’s phone lost power – she had been using a mapping application, which was more for comfort than guidance, since the well and home were not on any map. Coming out onto another village road, at least I think it was a different road, we saw the broken wall of a garden.
What we found there was a treasure beyond anything we could have imagined. In the final part of the story , I will reveal the treasure, and the secrets of the ancient artist-scholar’s transcendence.