By / 07-01-2020 /

This character is often used as an adjective with a meaning of “cold, poor or desolate.”

rén wèn hán shān dào

Ren refers to people and wen means “ask.” Han shan literally means ‘the cold mountain.’ Dao refers to a path or way. This term literally means that people ask the way to the cold mountain.

This is a line from a poem by Hanshan, a Tang Dynasty Zen poet. “Men ask the way to Cold Mountain/ Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail./ In summer, ice doesn’t melt/ The rising sun blurs in swirling fog./ How did I make it?/ My heart’s not the same as yours./ If your heart was like mine/ You’d get it and be right here” (trans. Gary Snyder).

In this poem, the Cold Mountain (Hanshan) refers not only to the poet himself but also the place in nature he lives. Therefore, this poem can be understood in either a literal way or a philosophical way. A philosophical explanation of this poem might be that when people ask Hanshan how to find the way to his philosophy and way of life, the poet answers that there is no way to do so unless their states of mind are the same.

As one of the most mysterious poets in Chinese history, most of Hanshan’s biographical details come from his poems. He walked away from what he called the dusty world, and came to Cold Mountain, that is, came to rest in the peace of the natural world and seek Taoist and Zen enlightenment. He did this to be able to spend time with his heart and mind, surrounded by the natural world that spoke more deeply to him and mirrored what he already understood to be himself. Hanshan’s poems tend to encourage people to discover their true selves. Hanshan tried to tell people how to live a carefree live through his experiences. However, his efforts were greeted with derisive hoots. Therefore, Hanshan realized that the furthest distance in the world is between people who cannot understand each other.

Another interesting detail is that the movie Cold Mountain in based on the bestselling 1997 novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. The epigraph to this novel reads: “Men ask the way to Cold Mountain/ Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.” Some interpret this quotation to mean that the essence of Cold Mountain is aloneness.


edited by REN GUANHONG