In the fifth year of Emperor Shenzong (神宗)’s Yuanfeng (元豐) reign (1082) in the Northern Song period, more than 800 years after the epic Battle of Red Cliff, the famous poet-official Su Shi and friends made two trips to Red Nose Cliff (赤鼻磯) west of the town Huangzhou (黃州). To commemorate these trips, Su wrote two rhapsodies that would earn him universal praise in the annals of Chinese literature: “Odes to the Red Cliff.” Afterwards, Red Nose Cliff at Huangzhou became known as “Dongpo’s Red Cliff,” which is not the actual place of the battle but not very far from it.
For Su Shi, this was also a time when he had to endure the hardships of exile from court that resulted from the Wutai Poem Incident (烏台詩案). In his rhapsodies Su yearned nostalgically for the daring bravura of heroes who fought at Red Cliff centuries earlier, while also facing the realities of life’s brevity and the hypocritical nature of people. Consequently, he was able to develop a clear and philosophical form of critical self-examination on the aspects of change and permanence. It was exactly the predicaments of his personal difficulties at this time that made it possible for Su to see through the veil of history and make the trips to his Red Cliff passed down and commemorated through the ages. For example, dramas based on stories revolving around Su Shi and Red Cliff were produced in great numbers during the following Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Countless calligraphers also repeatedly transcribed Su’s two rhapsodies on Red Cliff, which likewise became popular among painters wishing to illustrate and celebrate Su Shi and Red Cliff. (See some of the related artworks.)
This Ode was written upon the invitation of his friend Fu Yaoyu (傅堯俞, 1024–1091), and from the phrase “Shi composed this Ode last year” at the end of the scroll, one deduces that it was probably written during the 6th Year of Yuanfeng, when Su was 48 years of age. From Su’s particular reminders of “living in fear of more troubles”, and “by your love for me, you will hold this Ode in secrecy”, one has a sense of Su’s fear as a result of being implicated in the emperor’s displeasure over writings.
The start of the scroll is damaged and is missing 36 characters, which were supplemented by Wen Zhengming (文徵明, 1470–1559) with annotations in small characters, although some scholars believe that the supplementations were actually written by his son Wen Peng (文彭). The entire scroll is composed in regular script, the characters broad and tightly written, the brushstrokes full and smooth, showing that Su had achieved perfect harmony between the elegant flow in the style of the Two Wang Masters [Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361) and Wang Xianzhi(王獻之, 344–386)] that he learned from in his early years, and the more heavy simplicity in the style of Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709–785) that he learned in his middle ages.