Set the Wayback Machine to the year 1100. The poet Su Dongpo, passing by the Jinshan Monastery in what is now Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu Province, sits for his portrait, or maybe encounters a previous likeness of himself hanging on the temple wall. It’s painted by Li Longmian 李龍眠, a painter known for his ability to catch the spirit and movement of his subjects with a few outlined traces. After examining the portrait, Su picks up a brush and inscribes it with a few lines of verse. His handwriting is famous throughout the empire, as is his mercurial, humorous, bon vivant, caustic personality. A little self-portrait in words begins to unfold on the margins of the painted image:
A mind like wood already turned to ash, a body like an unmoored boat.
If anyone asks you, what have you achieved in this life? “Huangzhou, Huizhou, Danzhou.”
If the painted image, now lost, is the text, this little poem is the commentary. The first two lines tell us what we can’t directly see from looking, but can only surmise: what’s the inside story, what’s it like to be Su Dongpo? He tells us with two quotations from the magnificent, fanciful, joking-serious Daoist collection of parables known as the Zhuangzi: he has put aside all hope and desire, even the hope of self-improvement, and is like dead wood and ashes. “What is this? Can the body really be transformed into the likeness of dry wood, and can the mind really become as if dead ashes?” says a startled observer of deep meditation in that work. 何居乎？形固可使如槁木，而心固可使如死灰乎？Another dialogue in the same book includes the retort, “Those who are without ability have nothing to seek; they eat their fill and roam far and wide… Floating like an unmoored boat, they are empty and masterless.” 無能者無所求，飽食而敖遊，汎若不繫之舟，虛而敖遊者也. So in the first two lines, Su Dongpo is filling in whatever of his personality the painter had missed. He tells us that he is resigned but not disappointed, a lucid dreamer without aims, someone with no worldly ambition, both cast-off and free. These much-loved passages from Zhuangzi are exactly the right ones for expressing, with some modesty, the reclusive ideal as it must have appeared to thousands of retired scholars and officials. Then Su shifts to an external perspective in the third line, imagining that he is being asked by a stranger or a judging authority how to sum up his lifetime accomplishments. The answer comes in three place names: Huangzhou, Huizhou, Danzhou.
Su Dongpo was poet, calligrapher, painter, essayist, historian, but for most of his maturity he was gainfully employed as an official, and in that capacity he had more than the usual allowance of upsets. He could be sharp-tongued and impatient, and he was allied with one policy faction that was often aggressively suppressed by a rival faction. Because of his allegiances, he was demoted and banished from the capital on three main occasions, first to Huangzhou in present-day Hubei, then to Huizhou near Guangzhou, and finally to the remote island of Hainan, where he fully expected to fall victim to the tropical diseases that were endemic there. Fifteen or so years in all, out of his seventy-three years of life. A map of the Northern Song state’s territory gives us a graphic means of assessing Su Shi’s progress in offending his enemies: he was first exiled to a small town in the middle of the country, perhaps as a warning, on the next occasion to the very edge of the empire, a place that denizens of the capital would have considered uncouth and barbarous, and when that warning was insufficient he was sent to an island where the Chinese language was practically unknown, the risk of malaria was high, vermin were apt to eat one’s books during the endless rainy season, and the inhabitants were in the habit of slaughtering great numbers of cattle to propitiate the gods every time sickness or poverty threatened. Indeed, on this map drawn to illustrate the history of the Song Dynasty, Hainan Island is not even visible—although the source is of course nowhere near contemporary, we can take the absence of Hainan from it as an indirect witness to how eager the Wang Anshi faction was to remove Su Shi from every means of recovering his prior status and power. How easy to forget Hainan, and how desirable to forget Su Shi. By naming his three places of exile as his greatest achievements, Su Shi seems to be offering a bitter assessment of his years in government, as if to say, that’s what it all came to. Or—and this is not the exclusive “or,” rather the “or” that means “you have this choice as well”—he is permitting himself to glory in the extremity of his punishments. As if to say: you asked for my CV, here it is: Leavenworth, Sing Sing, Alcatraz. I am the guy they had to send all the way to Hainan: deal with it. When everyone aspires to a CV that reads, instead, “Harvard, Yale, Cornell,” you have to be pretty bold to reference the most exclusive penitentiaries. And that is particularly the case when you are by profession and identity usually classed in the company of people who can look back with pride on a set of life stages labeled with glorious and prestigious names. In truth, Su could have named the high points of his career instead. But he didn’t. And it is clear from the metrics that the quatrain was intended from the start to lead to that itinerary of hellholes. Six-syllable verse is not that common in Chinese poetry. Five-syllable or seven-syllable lines give a sharp caesura after the second or third syllable, imparting shape and tension to the verse. Six syllables sound flat, centerless, and prosy. But if what you really want to say consists of three two-syllable place names, there’s no other way.