He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if you only thought of
it deeply. Everything he did had a feeling of the Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets.
His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were
wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and
interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply–
Ha Ha!–the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and
sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy
of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

Hanshan – J.P. Seaton
My personal guess about the real origin of the Han Shan poetry is this: The poetry of the many hermits who lived on Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and Han Yen (Cold Cliff), two real locations in the Tien-tai Range, was becoming famous well before anyone thought to pull all the poems together. The Tien-tai Range was home to many temples and places of pilgrimage, and even today, or again today, cliffs in the area are adorned with poems both brush written and stone incised. Some of the best or the latter are the sources of the rubbings mentioned above. Its quite possible that Shan Han Shan (Han Shan’s Poems) originally meant the poems written or displayed at Han Shan. rather than poems by a poet named Han Shan. I doubt anyone will pin Han Shan down any further than he has been at this point, either through good scholarship (the scholars agree that there are at least two Han Shuns) or through educated guessing like mine. But there is a little more to be said about the poetry of Han Shan as it has come down to us.

Among these poems are many that appear to come from the best poetry of mountain hermits of Taoist. Buddhist, and maybe even free-agent mystics, with a sprinkling of more orthodox Buddhist work and some poems on themes appropriate to all three Chinese religions. For, as the Chinese have liked to say for millennia, The three Ways are one.” Among the works of Han Shan, along with the mountain poems, arc a few very fne poems of traditional Confucian rural retirement and a few that are modeled on the best of the Taoist epicurean poems. There are also few poems that fairly unconvincingly claim familiarity with or achievement in the cultural accomplishments of the Confucian, even of military men. Add a few bits of moral exhortation, some of which are very funny and clearly intended to be so, and some of which are not, and you have the IHan Shan collection, 307 poems in the Chinese collection and 311 in the Japanese. If there was something like a conspiracy to package these poems and present them as the work of a bodhisattva, I gratefully accept the gift. [tooltip content= “Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih Te, and Wang Fan-chih (Shambhala, 2009)”] [source][/tooltip]

She laughs that I’ve fallen behind.
I laugh that she’s gotten ahead.
Both of us laughing, no stopping us.


Hanshan – Tony Barnstone
Han Shan, who may or may not have existed, is the name given to the putative author of a collection of fascinating Tang dynasty poems, more than three hundred in number. The poems tell the story of the author’s retreat to Cold Mountain to live a life of hermetic simplicity, seeking Daoist and Chan (Zen) enlightenment in nature. They are proselytizing poems, but in their vernacular speech, their clarity of focus, and their celebration of simplicity, they embody what they seek to teach, and in this they achieve their greatest success.

Strangely enough, Han Shan is not considered a major poet in China. The Chinese complain that his work is too vernacular, full of good ideas but lacking in elegance and polish. And yet he has become a favorite poet in English translation, in part because he has had marvelous translators, among them Red Pine, Burton Watson, and Gary Snyder. Perhaps he is a poet who, to echo Robert Frost’s famous snub about Carl Sandburg, “can only be improved in translation.” The politics of literary reputation aside though, there is an undeniably remarkable voice that emerges from the poems of Han Shan, one that is quite rare in Chinese poetry. Like Meng Jiao, Han Shan was a cynic and an ironist, and the two poets’ bitterness seems to have damaged their reputation among readers in China. Han Shan was also a strange mixture of dogmatist and freethinker, and one senses a personality behind the poems that is harsh and yet humorously irrepressible. Whatever the craft value of his poetry in Chinese, there is much to appreciate in its fiddling Buddhist thought and in the way it captures the personality of a writer who may never have lived. [tooltip content= “Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (Anchor, 2005)”] [source][/tooltip]

“So ha-ha-ho-ha-ha” – The nature of the Tao of Hanshan and the mountain men >>>



Have I a body or have I none?
Am I who I am or am I not?
Pondering these questions,
I sit leaning against the cliff as the years go by,
Till the green grass grows between my feet
And the red dust settles on my head,
And the men gf the world, thinking me dead,
Come with offerings of wine and fruit to lay by my corpse.

Burton Watson


Human beings live in the dirt,
like bugs in a filthy bowl.
All day long crawling around and around,
never getting over the edge.
Even spiritual masters can’t make it,
wracking their brains for schemes and plans.
The months and the years, a  running river:
then there’s the day you wake up old.

J.P. Seaton


Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Gary Snyder


Do I have a body or not?
Am I my body or not?
Brooding on this,
I let things pass, sitting against a cliff
till green grass spills between my feet,
red dust cakes my head,
and common men, thinking me dead,
leave wine and fruit by my bed.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.