Bridging the divide: Literature, Dao and the case for subjective access in the thought of Su Shi

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In the 11th century in China, there was an unusual moment in which a number of philosophers, later associated with the Daoxue—or Neo-Confucian—school, confronted what they perceived as a long-standing sense of disjunction between inner, subjective reality and the structured patterns of the cosmos. One way they sought to overcome this disjunction was by positing new theories of the cosmos that focused on the underlying, shared reality behind the myriad differentiations of phenomena. A potential tension was born that affected how thinkers understood the relationship between wen 文 (writing, literature, culture) and Dao 道 (the cosmic process, the ultimate reality, the normative path). Some thinkers, like Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017–1073), believed that wen was simply a vehicle for carrying the Dao, and was thus, implicitly, dispensable. This idea was met with resistance from one of the leading intellectual figures of the time—the philosopher, poet and statesman Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101). While some of Su’s contemporaries, in their attempts to demonstrate that the world was real, and that truth was knowable, downplayed the role of individual experience and perception, Su stressed the necessity of subjective, individual experience as giving access, and concrete expression, to Dao. Su’s philosophical project came in the form of defending the enterprise of wen—writing as a creative, individual endeavor—and asserting that the quest for unity with the Dao could only be realized through direct, personal engagement in wen and other forms of meaningful practice. Through his philosophy of wen, Su sought to show that the search for truth, meaning and order did not—and could not—be achieved by transcending subjective experience. Instead, it had to be carried out at the point of encounter between self and the world, in the realm of practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)567-584
Number of pages18
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 23 Oct 2014


  • literature
  • philosophy
  • China
  • cosmology
  • Daoism
  • neo-Confucianism
  • aesthetics
  • self
  • phenomenology


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