Hanshan: A hermit-poet from Cold Mountain

BY CHEN YUEHONG | 07-01-2020
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A detail from “Hanshan and Shide” (known in Japan as Kanzan and Jittoku) by the Japanese painter Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908). Hanshan is identified by the scroll he holds as a poet while Shide by a broom as a kitchen cleaner. They have been a popular motif in Japanese Zen painting for meditation. Photo: TEREBESS

Hanshan (literally “Cold Mountain”), a relatively unknown Tang Dynasty (618–907) poet in China, has enjoyed great popularity beyond national borders as a poet and a Zen Buddhist, particularly admired as an idol for Western youth during the 1960s.

Hanshan in China
Little is known of Hanshan, not even his given name.

Of the 800 poems he is thought to have written, about 340 have survived. Different from most of the Chinese poets who wrote on paper, walls or arranged their poems into a collection, Hanshan fecklessly inscribed his poems onto any surface available, be it trees, rocks or birch bark sheets. This may explain why many of his poems have been lost to history.

There is no “long” biography of Hanshan, as we know little about his life. The most practical way to get closer to this eccentric and mysterious poet is through his extant poems. The evidence for thinking Hanshan was born in Shaanxi Province comes from one of his poems: “I recall the days of my youth off hunting near Pingling (in present day Shaanxi Province)” (trans. Red Pine). Some believed that Hanshan used to be a Confucian scholar who had repeatedly, until the age of 35, attempted to pass the imperial examination. Having failed the exam over and over again, his wife, hinted at by another poem, began to treat him coldly and distantly. Finally, with a heart yearning for other attachments, Hanshan gave up and headed south. In his 30s, Hanshan arrived at Tiantai Mountains in modern-day Zhejiang Province.

Hanshan’s decision to settle in the Tiantai Mountains was probably due to the popularity of Buddhism in that area at the time. The Tiantai mountain chain has been considered holy since early times because of its association with the cradle of Taoism and Buddhism in China. It was a major center of pilgrimage for one of the major schools of Buddhist teaching, Tiantai (perhaps better known under its Japanese name of Tendai). The initial site for the creation of the Tiantai school, Guoqing Temple, was built at the foot of the mountain.

After a period of reading, making poems and practicing Taoism and alchemy, Hanshan realized that there was no elixir or any method to make human beings immortal. Hence, he gave up Taoism and turned to Zen Buddhism. These details come from one of his poems—“In my first thirty years of life/ I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles./ Walked by rivers through deep green grass/ Entered cities of boiling red dust (red dust in Chinese means “human society”)./ Tried drugs, but couldn’t find immortality;/ Read books and wrote poems on history./ Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:/ I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears” (trans. Gary Snyder). Zen Buddhism began in China. This form of true Buddhism held that its practitioners could see true nature and become a Buddha in daily life if they achieved a sudden awakening to spiritual truth, which they could not accomplish by a mere reading of Buddhist scriptures. Hanshan didn’t perform tonsure to become a Buddhist monk in the Guoqing Temple formally, nor did he become an ordained Taoist priest in Tongbo Temple, an important Taoist site on the Tiantai Mountains. Perhaps he thought that there was no need to perform the usual forms of Buddhist spiritual cultivation, as long as he kept Zen and Taoist teachings in his mind. He retreated to Cold Mountain (the name of the cave he dwelled in) to live a life of hermetic simplicity—an ancient Hippie’s way of life. He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were made of wood. Yet every word he breathed was heavy with the subtle principles of  Zen Buddhism.

Few poems by Hanshan were collected in the poetry collections of the Tang and Song eras, because his poems are written in a direct, colloquial, and sometimes, jingling style, which contrasts sharply with the metrical forms and aesthetic conception that marked typical Chinese poetry. Hanshan depicted how people viewed his poems in one of his poems: “When fools read my poems,/ they don’t understand, so they laugh and make fun./ When ordinary people read my poems,/ they think and say, ‘They have a point.’/ When wise ones read my poems,/ they grasp them with big full smiles” (trans. Peter Levitt).

Hanshan in Japan
Compared with China, the Japanese have paid more attention to Hanshan, honoring him as the master of Zen poetry. This poet, often exaggeratedly depicted with shaggy hair and grotesque grins, captured the imagination of Japanese artists and writers so much that his portrait became one of their favorite themes.

The immense impact of Zen Buddhism on the Japanese explains why Hanshan is favored in Japan. Zen Buddhism started gaining nationwide popularity in Japan from the Kamakura period (1185–1333). As a poet of Zen Buddhism, Hanshan came under the spotlight. Some of his poems and sayings are considered Gāthā (special sayings of the Buddha in prose or verse) and are used directly in mediation and other Zen practices. Just like as he describes in his poem —“The ‘three realms’ I lay across to sleep, at ease, no affairs on my mind;/ The bright moon with a cool breeze—this is indeed my home” (In Buddhism, the “three realms” refers to the world of desire, the world of form and the world of formlessness), Hanshan lived a carefree life like a wanderer in a forest. His attitude towards life coincided with the trend of poetry—the longing of withdrawing from the worldly pursuit of fame, wealth and power—widely admired between the Heian and the Muromachi periods (794–1568). From an aesthetic point of view Hanshan’s poems are notable for their tranquility, emptiness and philosophical perspectives, a style similar to the core ideas in traditional Japanese aesthetics, including seijaku (tranquility and silence), yūgen (profound grace and subtlety) and mono no aware (a sensitivity to ephemera).


Hanshan in the United States
In the 1950s and 60s, a new generation of youth in the United States became known as the Beat Generation. As they began a spiritual quest into the world beyond the West, a group of Japanese Buddhist scholars represented by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki brought Zen to the West. Hanshan thus became a kind of spiritual guru for American college students. The American poet Gary Snyder described how this Chinese Zen poet influenced American people of those days in his translation of Hanshan’s poems: “He and his sidekick Shide became great favorites with Zen painters of later days—the scroll, the broom, the wild hair and laughter. They became immortals and you sometimes run into them today in the skidrows, orchards, hobo jungles, and logging camps of America.”

Jack Kerouac, a famous Beat writer, became so enthralled with Hanshan’s poems that he wrote a book named The Dharma Bums about the friendship between the narrator Ray Smith, based on Kerouac, and Japhy Ryder, based on Gary Snyder. Both Hanshan and Gary Snyder are viewed as spiritual gurus for the Beat Generation in this book. The Dharma Bums opens with a dedication to Hanshan.

What’s more interesting is that at the end of this book, Kerouac depicts how he tries to call Hanshan in the mountains and Hanshan seems to come down from the morning fog: “I called Han Shan in the mountains: there was no answer. I called Han Shan in the morning fog: silence … And suddenly it seemed I saw that unimaginable little Chinese bum standing there, in the fog, with that expressionless humor on his seamed face. It wasn’t the real-life Japhy of rucksacks and Buddhism studies and big mad parties at Corte Madera, it was the realer-than-life Japhy of my dreams, and he stood there saying nothing. ‘Go away, thieves of the mind!’ he cried down the hollows of the unbelievable Casades.”


The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Chen Yuehong is the former director of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Peking University.


edited by REN GUANHONG