In the annals of Chinese history, some names shine brighter than others. Su Dongpo, also known as Su Shi, is one such luminary — a renowned poet, essayist, painter, and statesman of the Song Dynasty. His influence was vast, comparable to the likes of Shakespeare in the West. Su’s writings give us a profound window into the past, and through them, we can also learn about other exceptional individuals of his time.
One lesser-known, but equally significant, character Su Dongpo introduced to history is Liu Tingyi. Our narrative today revolves around Liu Tingyi, a man whose steadfast commitment even left the illustrious Su Dongpo in admiration.
In 1074, during the era of the Northern Song Dynasty, Su Dongpo, at the age of 39, concluded his official duties in Hangzhou. He then requested a transfer to Mizhou, longing to be nearer to his brother.
However, during his initial winter in Mizhou, the Lantern Festival’s vibrant celebrations evoked profound memories of his wife who had passed away a decade earlier. Overwhelmed by emotion, he soon penned the deeply moving Song of the River City, which includes the lines: “Ten years alive, ten years dead; without thinking, how can I forget?” Additionally, while in Mizhou, Su Dongpo composed one of his most renowned poems, Prelude to the Water Melody, immortalizing the sentiment: “May we all live long, sharing the beauty of the moon.”
Though Su Dongpo spent two years in Mizhou without seeing his brother, he met a man he would come to deeply respect — Liu Tingyi. Years later, Su Dongpo himself recorded Liu’s story, so let’s learn about Liu Tingyi through Su Dongpo’s eyes.
Liu Tingyi’s love story
Hailing from Jinan, Shandong, Liu Tingyi had been engaged to a woman from his hometown before he passed the imperial examination. The two had grown fond of each other since childhood, and both families approved of their union. The engagement was set, but the formal ceremony was yet to take place.
Upon passing the highest level of the imperial examination, Liu was ready to serve as an official. However, around the same time, his fiancée was struck with a severe illness that left her blind. Given the circumstances and the girl’s humble background, her family felt she was no match for the promising Liu Tingyi. Some even advised Liu to marry the younger sister of his blind fiancée.
With a gentle smile, Liu responded: “I gave her my heart when we became engaged. Although she’s lost her sight, how could I go back on my word?” Remaining true to his commitment, Liu married her, and they lived together until her passing. Devastated by her death, Liu vowed never to remarry.
To Su Dongpo, it seemed inconceivable. Liu’s wife was blind and couldn’t care for herself, let alone take care of her husband. Being unable to grasp Liu’s deep grief or his decision not to remarry, Su Dongpo finally asked: “Love for a person often arises from their beauty. Where did your love for your wife come from, and why does her death sadden you so deeply?”
Liu replied: “Whether she could see or not, she was my wife. If my love for her was only skin deep, it would wane as she aged. And if it was like that, why wouldn’t I just marry any beautiful woman who caught my eye on the street?”
After hearing Liu’s words, Su Dongpo was profoundly impressed and predicted that Liu would either become very wealthy or achieve enlightenment through religious practice. However, no one took his prediction seriously and thought it was just a joke. It was not until eight years later that his prediction came true.
Eight years after their conversation, Su Dongpo penned: “Just yesterday, news from Mount Lu revealed that Liu Tingyi was practicing fasting and meditation in the Taiping Monastery. Though he had not eaten even a grain of rice for many years, his energy remains intact. With a radiant purple light emanating from his head, he moves swiftly, covering sixty miles effortlessly.” Liu Tingyi, as Su Dongpo foresaw, had indeed achieved enlightenment.
This tale prompted Su Dongpo to compose Writing About Liu Tingyi, expressing deep admiration for a man whose understanding of love was unparalleled.
Translated by Joseph Wu