Han Shan: Cold Mountain Hermit

Two distinct biographical traditions exist about the ninth-century Chinese poet and recluse who called himself Han-Shan (Cold Mountain). The first version emphasizes his eccentricity, his visits to a Buddhist temple for  stints of odd jobs or to poke fun at the monks' self-importance. This tradition associates him with two other eccentric hermits, Shih-te (Pickup) and Feng-kan (Big Stick). The second tradition is based more solidly on the biographical elements found in his three-hundred-plus poems. These clues to the biography of Han-shan center around his life after the An Lu-shan Rebellion (755-763).

For forty years the benign emperor Ming Huang had witnessed unprecedented prosperity under his rule. War, trade, social reform, and the proliferation of the arts had bestowed wealth on nearly every strata of T'ang dynasty China. But in dotage, the emperor's obsession with a concubine grew. He appointed the concubine's unscrupulous brother to full power while disappearing behind a veiled curtain of private pleasures. When the brother's rule inevitably brought about rebellion, the revolt was led by a Tatar official An Lu-shan, and the blood-letting and turmoil continued unabated for eight years. In this chaos and its aftermath emerged the great T'ang poets Li Po, Tu Fu -- and Han-shan.

Apparently Han-shan was born to privilege but did not succeed in civil or military service. He was then employed by an official in a clerical capacity.

My writing and judgment are not that bad
but an unfit body receives no post
examiners expose me with a jerk
they wash away the dirt and search for my sores.

Han-shan married and had a son. But then came the An Lu-shan Rebellion.

Han-shan's employer had offered his services to the new government, but two years later when the capital was recaptured by the emperor, not all the civil servants who had switched allegiance were pardoned, including Han-shan's employer. The poet had to flee for his life, and in the midst of continued chaos and violence escaped to the Tientei Mountains with a new identity, family in tow. As translator Red Pine says:

In the entire history of Chinese culture, no other poet of singular stature has managed to preserve the veil of mystery concerning his true identity as well as Cold Mountain, and I propose that this was not literary conceit but a matter of life or death.

We get a quick glimpse of Han-shan's new daily life:

A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books.

With this turning point, Han-shan embraces the life of a hermit in the Tientei Mountains.

My true home is Cold Mountain
perched among cliffs beyond the reach of trouble ...

The Tientiei Mountains are my home
mist-shrouded cloud paths keep guests away
thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy
above a rocky ledge among ten thousand streams
with bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks
with hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks
once you see through transience and illusion
the joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed.

The poems reveal a thorough knowledge of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sources as well as of poetry and literature. Han-shan never professes a particular creed but freely borrows from all the traditions. Indeed he was a consistent critic of rituals and monks. In one poem he speaks of encountering Taoist monks who praise elixirs and await a crane or fish at death and calls them "fools ... persisting in follishness." In general he finds the "homeless" or professed monks and nuns "do not practice the homeless profession."

Nor does Han-shan respect the scholar-gentlemen, court poets, and civil  servants who play at reclusion (such as Li-Po):

You are not really hermits
you just call yourselves recluses
they would never wear silk headdress
they prefer a hemp bandana ...
you are like monkeys with those hats
aping those who shun the dust and wind.

It is not that Han-shan is a cynic with no point of view, for everywhere his poems reflect the wisdom of Taoist and Buddhist thought.

I have always loved friends of the Way
friends of the Way I have always held dear
meeting a traveler with a silent spring
or  greeting a guest talking Chan ...


In an early poem, Han-shan had described himself as a "poor clerk" and his escape and mountain isolation meant that his former poverty became hermit simplicity. At first he lived in a cave ("my cave is on a distant ridge"), and amenities were few:

soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow.

He reflects philosophically on his fate: "Heaven and earth can crumble and change."

Eventually, though, he made a hut.

I cut some thatch to roof a pine hut
I made a pool and channeled the spring ...

Apparently he farmed a while, but probably only as long as he had a family:

I returned to the edge of a forest
and chose the life of a farmer
forthright in my dealings
no flattery in my speech ...
out working I love to watch buffalo calves
at home I don't go far.

But after the personal ignominy of the An Lu-shan Rebellion, not all was contentment for Han-shan. He mentions that his wife "disdained" him, probably referring to the difficult poverty after their reclusion. He never mentions her again, nor his son -- only his aloneness and seclusion. One early poem offers a glimpse of his bleakest years.

A trifle poor in the past
today I am completely poor
whatever I do does not work out
every road is a treadmill
my legs quake in the mud
my stomach aches on festival days ...

And in another poem, he reveals

last night I dreamt I went home
and saw my wife at her loom
she stopped the shuttle as if in thought
then raised it as if without strength
I called and she turned to look
looking, she did not know me ...

This passage suggests that she may have died in those early years of poverty.

Han-shan mentions how dew soaks his thatched eaves and that the sill of his only window, through which moonlight enters, is made of old crockery -- obvious signs of poverty. But for all that, he asserts, "Even if I had a heap of gold, I would rather be poor in the woods."

Han-shan had made of his existence something positive.

When hermits hide from society
most retire to the hills
where green vines veil the slopes
and jade streams echo unbroken
where happiness reigns
and contentment lasts
where pure white lotus minds
are not stained by the muddy world.

In his encounters, he notes, people call him crazy, ugly, unkempt, and unintelligible. Han-shan did not care. People could not begin to understand, he reflects. He was perpetually "hard in pursuit of meeting a buddha," but it probably would not happen. "There is a road," he writes, "but not to town." Instead, he invites all (rhetorically) to follow this road up Cold Mountain and see if they might not ascend it and understand.

The man in the clouds and cliffs
with one thin robe
in autumn he lets the leaves fall
in spring he lets the trees bloom
he sleeps through the Three Realms free of concerns
with moonlight and wind for his home.

Here are a few more poems in which Han-shan describes himself:

Cold Mountain is nothing but clouds
secluded and free of dust
a hermit owns a cushion of straw
the moon is his lone lamp
his bed of stone overlooks a pool
his neighbors are tigers and deer
preferring the joys of solitude
he remains as a man beyond form.

Relaxing below Cold Cliff
the surprises are very special
taking a basket to gather wild plants
bringing it back loaded with fruit
spreading fresh grass for a simple meal
nibbling on magic mushrooms
rinsing my ladle and bowl in a pool
making a stew from scraps
sitting in sunshine wrapped in a robe
reading the poems of the ancients.

Cold Mountain has a dwelling
with no partitions inside
six doors open left and right
from the hall he sees blue sky
wherever he looks the house is bare
the east wall greets the west wall
nothing, really, between them
no need for anybody's care
he makes a small fire when cold comes
cooks plants when he gets hungry
he is not like the old farmer
who enlarges his fields and outbuildings ...

Old age does not spare the hermit of feelings like any other person. Winter's cold is sharper and his body harder to warm (though, he says, there is never a need for a fan in summer!). Looking in a mirror one day, Han-shan sees nothing but "wisps of white." He reflects that his "good days are almost gone."

The Sage of Cold Mountain
I am always like this
up here alone
he is neither dead nor alive. ...

face brown, head white, content with mountain life
cloth robe pulled tight, I accept my karma.

And in another poem:

An old man alone on a darkening ridge
retiring to my hut I accept white hair
but sigh that today and the years gone by
are mindless, like the rivers flowing east.

We do not know when Han-shan died, and it was not for another two centuries before someone copied his poems from the rocks and temple walls of the vicinity in which he had left them, assembling the poems into a collection to be added to the definitive T'ang anthology. But even to his last day, we may image Han-shan as he was in one of his more heart-felt poems:

Today I sat before the cliffs
I sat until the mists drew off
a single crystal stream
a towering ridge of jade
a cloud's dawn shadow not yet moving
the moons night light still adrift
a body free of dust
a mind without a care.


The best collections of Han-shan in English translation include:
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine [i.e., Bill Porter]. Port Townshend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000; The View from Cold Mountain, translated by Arthur Tobias, James Sanford, and J.P. Seaton. Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 1982;  Cold Mountain: 100 Poems, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Grove Press, 1962;and The Poetry of Han-shan, translated by Robert Henricks. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1990. Red Pine's edition includes the original Chinese.