Monday, November 11, 2013

Han Shan or Cold Mountain: life is short

Two poems by Han Shan on the transience of youth for Spring and Summer swiftly lead to Fall and Winter:

A moth-browed girl in town
how her pendants chime
teasing a parrot before the flowers
playing a lute beneath the moon
her singing echoes for months
thousands watch her briefest dance
but surely this won't last
the hibiscus can't bear cold

A fine young man on horseback
waves his whip at the willows
he can't imagine death
he builds no boat or ladder
the seasonal flowers are lovely
until the day they wither and fade
rock sugar and clarified butter
mean nothing when you're dead

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
Copper Canyon Press
trans. by Red Pine

The following notes are abstracted from the collection of poems
7.  -the young woman is probably a member of a traveling troupe of entertainers
     -the hibiscus is called "the cold-fearing flower" and dies at the first sign of fall
     -fall, of course, signifies the approach of winter, the season of death (my comment)

8.  -boat or ladder: Buddhists use the symbol of a boat for their spiritual discipline
     -ladder refers to the search of wandering Taoists to reach inaccessible places when looking for  plants to concoct their elixirs.
     -"Rock sugar and clarified butter (ghee) represent the taste of liberation, refined of all impurities."
     -In other words, after death it's too late to strive for enlightenment (my comment).

I think Shakespeare would agree:

"Golden lads and girls all must,
 As chimney-sweepers, all come to dust."

Cymbeline, Act IV,  Scene II


  1. Great poems! Thanks for posting the notes, too.

  2. Cheryl,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Fortunately the collection I have provides helpful notes,