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Yan Hui, Han Shan 寒山. Color on silk. Tokyo National Museum

Hanshan (Chinese: 寒山pinyin: Hánshān; literally "Cold Mountain", fl. 9th century) was a legendary figure associated with a collection of poems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the Taoist and Chan tradition. He is honored as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri in Zen lore. In Japanese and Chinese paintings he is often depicted together with his sidekick Shide or with Fenggan another monk with legendary attributes.



The collection of poems attributed to Hanshan may span the entire Tang Dynasty as Edwin G. Pulleyblank asserts in his study Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Hanshan.[1] identifies him as the monk Chiyan (智岩, 577 – 654), but that has been disputed by Paul Demiéville among others. The Encyclopedia of China gives his date as around 712 and after 793. Jia Jinhua came to the conclusion, after a study of Chan phrases in some 50 of the poems, that this particular group of poems may be attributable to the Chan monk Caoshan Benji (840-901).


The poems have often been translated, by Arthur Waley (1954), Gary Snyder (1958), and Burton Watson (1970), among others. The first complete translation to a western language was into French by Patrick Carré in 1985. There are two full English translations, by Robert G. Henricks (1990), and Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 1983, 2000). There is also a collection of 130 of the poems, Encounters With Cold Mountain, by Peter Stambler[2].

Little is known of his work, since his poems were written all around, and on, the mountains he called home, and little is sure about his life, apparently because he was a fugitive. Of the 600 poems he is thought to have written at some point before his death, around 307 were collected and have survived. Our authority for the number written is a poem he wrote:

My five-word poems number five hundred,
My seven-word poems seventy-nine,
My three-word poems twenty-one.
Altogether, six hundred rhymes.

(The "words" refer to how many Chinese characters are in each line of the verse, not how many are in the whole poem. For example, many if not most of the five-character verses were written with eight lines for a poem of 40 characters in total. Also, most Chinese words are one character each but some are two characters, so there is not always an exact equivalent between the number of characters and number of words.)

All translations here are Red Pine's, except where noted.


Hanshan is said to have lived in a cave named 'Hanyan' (寒岩, Cold Cliff), a day's travel from the founding home of the Tiantai Buddhist sect, Guoqing Temple; itself located within the Taishan Mountain range on China's southeast coast. He would have been 700 miles from the twin capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an. He is usually associated with two close friends ("The Tientai Trio"), Fenggan and Shide, who both lived in Guoqing Temple.

See Poem 44:

I usually live in seclusion
but sometimes I go to Kuoching
to call on the Venerable Feng-kan
or to visit Master Shih-Te.
But I go back to Cold Cliff alone,
obeying an unspoken agreement.
I follow a stream that has no spring
the spring is dry but not the stream.

The precise dates for Hanshan are much disputed due to textual inconsistencies and anachronisms (possibly due to attempts to give him greater stature, a not uncommon practice). But what is certain is that he can definitely be dated to either the 8th or 9th century CE. After Hanshan's disappearance, a Taoist named Xu Lingfu (徐灵府), a native of Hangzhou, apparently collected his poems from the various mountains, rocks, trees, and walls they were written on. This collection, however, is not mentioned in any of his written works, and as Xu ceased to write after 825 CE, that puts a lower bound on the date of Hanshan's death, and an upper bound as Xu must have collected Hanshan's corpus before Xu's own death in 841. Legend has it that Hanshan disappeared 12 years before dying, which would bracket his death between 837 and 851 CE. No information exists on his date of birth, so speculation is futile. There are some possible autobiographical details, from which one might infer that his home town was Handan, and that he was born to a wealthy or noble family.

Poem 28

This maid is from Hantan,
her singing has the lilt.
Make use of her refuge;
her songs go on forever
you're drunk don't talk of going
stay until the morning comes
where you sleep tonight
her embroidered quilt fills a silver bed.

Poem 47

Mistress Tsou of Tiyen
and Mistress Tu of Hantan,
the two of them equally old
and sharing the same love of face,
yesterday went to a tea.
But poorly dressed they were shown to the back.
Because their skirts were frayed,
they had to eat leftover cake.

It is worth noting that Handan is the only city besides the twin capitals mentioned in all the poems, and that there is a hill outside Handan called, very similarly to himself (but with a different 'han'), 'Cold Mountain'. Basis for thinking Hanshan well-born comes from Poem 101:

I recall the days of my youth
off hunting near Pingling.
An envoy's job wasn't my wish.
I didn't think much of immortals;
I rode a white horse like the wind!
Chased hares and loosed falcons-
suddenly now with no home,
who'll show an old man pity?

Note that riding white horses and hunting with falcons near Pingling were all reserved to nobility. One might also infer that he did not advance very far in the bureaucracy, because the higher levels of the official examinations required not only a sound mind and a very sound grasp of the classics, but also an unblemished body. He tells us of a foot injury in several poems:

Poem 71:

Someone lives in a mountain gorge
cloud robe and sunset tassels
holding sweet plants that he would share.
But the road is long and hard
burdened with regrets and doubts,
old and unaccomplished,
called by others crippled,
he stands alone steadfast.

Poem 113:

My writing and judgment aren't 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,
of course it depends on Heaven's will.
But this year I'll try once more,
a blind man who shoots for a sparrow's eye
just might score a hit.

Poem 259:

I love the joys of the mountains,
wandering completely free,
feeding a crippled body another day,
thinking thoughts that go nowhere.
Sometimes I open an old sutra,
more often I climb a stone tower
and peer down a thousand-foot cliff
or up where clouds curl around
where the windblown winter moon
looks like a lone-flying crane.

(Cranes are common symbol of Taoist transcendence.)

Taking all this, along with two other poems (below) together, Hanshan's premier English translator, Red Pine, favors a biography that places him in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, as a son of a noble family who, due to a foot deformity, perhaps caused by a riding accident, never advanced very far in the bureaucracy, only up to a clerk or such. Implicated in the An Shi Rebellion, he fled, changing his name and seeking anonymity, eventually settling down far from the capitals, out in the hinterlands of the Taishan mountains, where he would spend his time as a hermit, writing the poems for which he is remembered. This theory is highly speculative and not accepted by all scholars. The latter part of Red Pine's theory stems from these poems:

Poem 26:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed?
Accepting my fate I fled to the woods,
to dwell and gaze in freedom.
No one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds.
Soft grass serves as a mattress,
my quilt is the dark blue sky.
A boulder makes a fine pillow;
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change.

Poem 81:

I labored in vain reciting the Three Histories,
I wasted my time reading the Five Classics,
I've grown old checking yellow scrolls
recording usual everyday names.
"Continued Hardship" was my fortune
"Emptiness" and "Danger" govern my life.
I can't match riverside trees,
every year with a season of green.

(Yellow scrolls could refer to population records, and the astrological quarters 'Emptiness' and 'Danger', which pertain to the Palace and tragedy, respectively, aptly describe the An Lushan's rebellion.)


Hanshan's poetry consists of Chinese verse, in 3, 5, or 7 character lines; never shorter than 2 lines, and never longer than 34 lines. The language is marked by the use of more colloquial Medieval Vernacular Sinitic than almost any other Tang poet.[3] They are notable for their straightforwardness, which contrasts sharply with the cleverness and intricateness that marked typical Tang Dynasty poetry.

Poem 283:

Mister Wang the Graduate
laughs at my poor prosody.
I don't know a wasp's waist
much less a crane's knee.
I can't keep my flat tones straight,
all my words come helter-skelter.
I laugh at the poems he writes-
a blind man's songs about the sun!

(All these terms refer to ways a poem could be defective according to the rigid poetic structures then prevalent.)

Thematically, Hanshan draws heavily on Buddhist and Taoist themes, often remarking on life's short and transient nature, and the necessity of escape through some sort of transcendence. He varies and expands on this theme, sometimes speaking of Mahayana Buddhism's 'Great Vehicle', and other times of Taoist ways and symbols like cranes.

The following poem begins with the imagery of the burning house and the three carts from the Parable of the Burning House found in The Lotus Sutra, then ends with typical Zen and Taoist imagery of freedom from conceptualizations.

Poem 253:

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything's empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.

This mixed influence is probably due to the high preponderance of Taoists and Buddhists in the same area. The eminent Taoist Ge Hong acclaimed Mt. Tiantai as 'the perfect place for practicing the arts of immortality,' which is probably also why so many Buddhist temples were established in the vicinity as well.

Poem 13:

"Brothers share five districts;
father and sons three states."
To learn where the wild ducks fly
follow the white-hare banner!
Find a magic melon in your dream!
Steal a sacred orange from the palace!
Far away from your native land
swim with fish in a stream!

Many poems display a deep concern for humanity, which in his view stubbornly refuses to look ahead, and short-sightedly indulges in all manner of vice, like animal flesh, piling up sins 'high as Mount Sumeru'. But he holds out hope that people may yet be saved; 'Just the other day/ a demon became a Bodhisattva.'

Poem 18:

I spur my horse past ruins;
ruins move a traveler's heart.
The old parapets high and low
the ancient graves great and small,
the shuddering shadow of a tumbleweed,
the steady sound of giant trees.
But what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals.

While Hanshan eschewed fancy techniques and obscure erudition, his poems are still highly evocative at times:

Poem 106:

The layered bloom of hills and streams
Kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds
mountain mists soak my cotton bandanna,
dew penetrates my palm-bark coat.
On my feet are traveling shoes,
my hand holds an old vine staff.
Again I gaze beyond the dusty world-
what more could I want in that land of dreams?

He is hard to pin down religiously. Chan concepts and terminology sometimes appear in his work, but he criticized the Buddhists at Tiantai. He directed criticism at Taoists as well, and had no problem bringing Taoist scriptural quotations, and Taoist language when describing his mountains, into his poems.

Poem 117:

I deplore this vulgar place
where demons dwell with worthies.
They say they're the same,
but is the Tao impartial?
A fox might ape a lion's mien
and claim the disguise is real,
but once ore enters the furnace,
we soon see if it's gold or base.

Poem 246:

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they'd ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don't follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

Poem 307:

Whoever has Cold Mountain's poems
is better off than those with sutras.
Write them up on your screen
and read them from time to time.


Hanshan was a sympathetic and important figure for Beat Generation writers Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac's The Dharma Bums closes with a vision of Hanshan, and at Snyder's suggestion, Kerouac dedicated the book to the fabled poet.[4]


  1. ^ Pulleyblank 1978
  2. ^ Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1996
  3. ^ Mair 1992, pp. 269, 271
  4. ^ Suiter 2002, pg. 239


  • The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Red Pine, Copper Canyon Press 2000, ISBN 1-55659-140-3.
  • Mair, Victor H. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 112, No. 2 (Apr., 1992). Script and Word in Medieval Vernacular Sinitic.
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G., Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Hanshan. in Mioa, Ronald C., ed. Studies in Chinese poetry and poetics, Vol I. (1978) San San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center.
  • Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks (2002) Counterpoint. ISBN 1582431485; ISBN 1-58243-294-5 (pbk)

See also

Chinese poetry



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