The Cold Mountain

Updated: Sep 3

Nobody knows where Han Shan had come from. He lived in the Cold Mountain, sometimes coming down to visit the Guoqing temple. He wore a fancy hat, a ragged cotton cloth, and worn-out sandals. Sometimes he would sing or chant verses in the temple porches, and sometimes he would sit at farmers' houses, singing and whistling. No one ever really got to know him.

He wrote his poems on cliff faces, rocks, trees, bamboo, and the walls of farmers' homes. One day he went into a cave, and the cave closed up behind him.


Ranges, ridges, daunting cliffs. It's divination that has shown me this place. The only roads are for the birds, no man tracks here. As for my backyard, white clouds clothing dark stone. I lived here for years watching The Great Change turning spring into winter, and back again.


Here's a word for the rich folks with pots and bells: the name that precedes you is empty.


*

Cold Mountain Road is a joke: there's no track, not horse trail. Creeks like veins in stone, and just as hard to mark their twists. Fields upon fields of crags and scars, who would ever try to count them?


Tears of dew upon a thousand blades of a thousand kinds of grasses. The wind signs his best song in a certain pine, only I know where it is.


And so I'm lost again, body asking shadow, where to now?


**

If you're looking for a peaceful place, Cold Mountain's the answer. A little breeze, the breath of the shaded pines, and the harder you listen, the better this music gets. Under pines an old man reads aloud the ancient wisdom in his soothing soft voice. He's been sitting there for so long that we forgot how to return. Why should he, though?


***

My mind's the autumn moon, shining in the jade pool, reflecting clear and pure. There's nothing to compare it to, wo what else can I say?


****

Down in the city there's a moth-browed girl. Her pendants chime in the wind, teasing a parrot as she sits among the flowers. She plays a lute beneath the moon. Her songs echo for three months in a row. Her slightest movement, her briefest dance draws thousands.


But this won't last. The beautiful face of the hibiscus crumbles under the frost's caress.


*****

For more years than I can remember I longed to go to the Eastern Cliff. But today I just grabbed a vine and started my way up. About halfway up wind and mist closed in, slabs tugged at my shirt, mud spat at my feet, and I couldn't keep going.


So here I stay, under this cinnamon tree, white clouds for my pillow. I'll just take a nap.


Han Shan, Cold Mountain Poems

after the translations of J.P. Seaton and Red Pine


Cover image: details from Qiu Ying - The Emperor Guangwu Fording a River (c. 1534-42)