Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Han-shan or Cold Mountain

Han-shan was a hermit poet who lived sometime during the late 8th century and early 9th century. No one is certain about his dates, just as no one knows his true name. He lived in a shallow cave on Cold Cliff and called himself after the mountain. According to the Wikipedia entry, after his death, "Lu Ch'iu-Yin, governor of T'ai Prefecture" gave an order to collect Han-shan's "poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs — and also to collect those written on the walls of peoples' houses."

The collection I have of his poetry, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, is a bilingual edition and includes all of his surviving poetry, 307 poems to be exact. The poems are translated by Red Pine and are published by Copper Canyon Press.

His poems are short, for the most part, and many are directed to the reader. It gives me the feeling that Han-shan himself is speaking directly to me. It's almost a poetic FAQ for many of the poems are answers to questions people might ask him--Why are you a hermit? Why are you living in this cave? What is it like to live alone up here? Other poems are comments on social, political, and religious issues. I find it a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone who lived over a thousand years ago and equally fascinating to discover that many of the issues he covers are still with us today.

This is the first poem in the collection:

Towering cliffs were the home I chose
bird trails beyond human tracks
what does my yard contain
white clouds clinging to dark rocks
every year I've lived here
I've seen the seasons change
all you owners of tripods and bells
what good are empty names

Han-shan seems unimpressed by conspicuous consumption and self-aggrandizement. I wonder if living where he does has contributed to his attitude. I've also read that his poems suggest a melding of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. That may also have something to do with his disdain.

Note to the poem: "Tripods and bells were cast at great expense for use at sacrificial ceremonies, and the names of ancestors or the men who commissioned them were often carved on their surfaces. Empty names indeed."


  1. Dang, that's a fine fourth line.
    Cheers, Kevin

  2. Kevin,

    "white clouds clinging to dark rocks"

    Agreed. It has that physical presence that's found in a good haiku.