Han Shan

Han Shan
(Han-shan, Master of Cold Mountain)
(ca. 600–800)
   The name Han Shan literally means “cold mountain,” and it is unclear whether the eccentric Zen recluse traditionally associated with that name was in fact a real person or a legendary figure around whose name the 300 poems attributed to him were assembled during the TANG DYNASTY of medieval China. Regardless of their author, however, the poems themselves have come to be much admired outside of China, particularly in Japan and the United States.
   The poems seem to have been originally collected sometime late in the Tang dynasty. A preface to the collection purports to be written by a Tang official named Yin Luqiu (Yin Lü-ch’iu), who describes his meeting with the strange hermit Han Shan and his fellow recluse, Shide (Shih-te). According to Yin Luqiu, no one knew anything about where Han Shan came from, but he lived a reclusive life at a place known as Cold Mountain in the Tiantai (T’ien-t’ai) Mountains, from which he occasionally visited the nearby Guoqing (Kuoch’ing) Temple.After relating stories of Han Shan’s unusual behavior, Yin Luqiu describes how both Han Shan and Shide disappear into a cave. After this, Yin Luqiu says, he gathered together poems that the two recluses had carved into trees, or written on rocks or the walls of houses, and he presents the collection as those very poems.
   Yin Luqiu’s preface is suspicious for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there is no record of any Tang bureaucrat of that name. It seems likely that the entire story is the product of a fertile literary imagination. It is even uncertain whether anyone existed by the name of Han Shan, though there are several mountains by that name, and one does have a temple.Nor do we have a date for the poems: Yin never gives a date, and estimates of dates for the poems’ production range from the late sixth to the early ninth centuries. Nevertheless, though the quality is uneven, many of the poems themselves make worthwhile reading. They are written in a simple, often colloquial language, and most are in a traditional Chinese eight-line form with five characters to a line, where even lines rhyme. The lyrics cover a wide range of topics: Some satirize greed, pride, or the corruption of the Buddhist clergy; some complain of poverty, of life’s brevity, or of the difficulties of official Chinese bureaucracy in the Tang dynasty. Some of the most effective, and the basis of Han Shan’s popularity, involve vivid descriptions of Cold Mountain itself, or of the natural world around it, often with an application to individual spiritual life. One such poem is the following:
   Here is a tree older than the forest itself;
   The years of its life defy reckoning.
   Its roots have seen the upheavals of hill and valley,
   Its leaves have known the changes of wind and frost.
   The world laughs at its shoddy exterior
   And cares nothing for the fine grain of the wood inside.
   Stripped free of flesh and hide,
   All that remains is the core of truth.
   (Watson, 1970, 111)
   The poems are available in several English translations, including some by award-winning American poet Gary Snyder. They speak to a modern environmentalist mood, but also to a spirituality that sees in nature a way of expressing the inexpressibility of the transcendent God.
   ■ Han Shan. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan. Edited and translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
   ■ Henricks, Robert G. The Poetry of Han-shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
   ■ Snyder, Gary. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1965.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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