Tony Barnstone:

Han Shan Isn’t Dead, He’s Just Turned into the Mountain: Some Notes on Translation

My new project (in collaboration with the Chinese poet-scholar Chou Ping) is to do a translation of a manuscript of over 300 poems that dates back to the Tang dynasty and that is attributed to the Chinese poet-monk Han Shan. Most of the poems are written in rhyming, 5-character, 8-line verse, though some are written in 4-line quatrains or in longer forms. These are the complete poems attributed to Han Shan, though as is often the case with ancient manuscripts, some doubt remains as to whether or not all of the poems are by the same author. Han Shan, like Kabir and other major mystical poets around the world, became a tradition to the religious community who read his work, and one that others sought to emulate and in whose voice others may have written. 

He is certainly among the few most important Zen poets of the world, rivaling Wang Wei and Basho, and he continues to be extremely popular and influential around the world. The fact that Han Shan has been translated by several of the finest translators of Chinese poetry (Red Pine, Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, and others) testifies to his extraordinary fascination for the English language reader. He is a poet whose work appeals on a number of fronts. He was a Buddhist monk who retreated to live as a hermit on Cold Mountain, and his poetry is the best reflection of his religious and spiritual quest. To today’s reader, his often sarcastic verse feels fresh and direct in its no-nonsense analysis of the world outside of Cold Mountain, where all beings eat each other in a great cycle of mutual cannibalism, capitalism, greed, lust, and the exercise of power.

On the other hand, because he is also a poet of directness and of the vernacular, he is somewhat less popular in Chinese literary (versus religious) circles, because over the centuries the Chinese literati have tended to prefer indirection and a specialized poetic vocabulary. Some Chinese scholars complain that his work is too vernacular, full of good ideas but lacking in elegance and poetic polish. He has, however, become a favorite poet for the American readership. Perhaps he is a poet who, to echo Robert Frost’s famous snub about Carl Sandburg, “can only be improved in translation.” If one ignores the politics of literary reputation, though, there is a quite remarkable voice that emerges from the poems of Han Shan, one that is quite rare in Chinese poetry. He is a strange mixture of dogmatist and free-thinker, and one senses a personality behind the poems that is harsh and yet humorously irrepressible. There is much to appreciate in the riddling Buddhist thought problems in these poems and in the way they capture his intense voice and personality.

I fell in love with the poems of Han Shan while putting together my last book, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, for which I translated 23 of his poems. I suppose one reason Han Shan’s poems so appealed to me was that I have long been interested in spiritual poetry from around the world. In fact, my first book was a translation of the selected poems of the Zen poet Wang Wei, and my third book was a compilation of often Zen and Daoist Chinese poems about poetry and stories about writing. It is not that I consider myself particularly spiritual or religious—to do so would mean that I felt I understood more than I do or that I felt that I knew some answers. Rather, it is that in the poems of Dogen, Basho, Hafiz, Rumi, Kabir, Wang Wei, Tao Qian, and others, I see writers who have spent their lives asking the important questions. Why do we live? Where do we come from? Where do we go when we die? What is the basis for moral behavior? Are the things that we have been trained to consider important—money, family, power, security, possessions, status, accolades—really worth anything? What happens if you try to make your mind think in ways it was not trained to think by language and education? Where would it take you, if freed from such conceptual chains?

I believe that poetry speaks best across what can seem an intergalactic distance created by the intervening centuries, by linguistic and cultural distance, when it asks such questions with an honest and open mind. When we read such poems, we do so with a shock of recognition. We recognize in the Chinese monk who abandoned the world of the Chinese court to live in poverty on a mountain a kindred spirit, because we see in the poetry of Han Shan that same questioning: “Do I have a body or not? / Am I my body or not?” He says he’s come back to Cold Mountain to “lie back in a stream washing out my ears,” and we know he’s washing his ears out of “books and histories” and the ways of the world, trying to see and be without preconceptions. He wants to be like the ancient tree he describes: ‘When the bark is all stripped off, / only essence remains.” As a translator, I hope to do something similar—to work at these poems till all the bark is stripped off and till the essence of this intense poetic questioning of the world remains, intelligent, raw, and still present after 1200 years.


It is difficult to put together a resume for Han Shan. Key points on such a resume would have to read:

      • Gave up his career and family
      • Lived in a cave in the mountains for decades
      • Was known for laughing loudly
      • Wrote poems on rocks and trees
      • Was unknown among literary circles
      • Gave up eating meat
  • It is hard to write a biography for him as well, since what we know 1200 years later about this Chinese poet comes to us swathed in mystery and myth, full of contradictory evidence. Nonetheless, here is what we know about Han Shan, insofar as we can know anything!
  • Han Shan was either a poor clerk who could not receive a post in the Chinese civil administration system, or a minor scholar-official. He lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), the golden age of China, a time of extraordinary achievement in science, medicine, art, music, calligraphy and especially poetry. He probably lived at the end of the 8th Century, at the end of the High Tang and beginning of the Late Tang periods. The end of the High Tang, the greatest period of achievement by Chinese poets, was ushered in by a rebellion against the emperor led by An Lushan, a Turkic general. This rebellion devastated the empire and sent many Chinese poets into exile.

    Han Shan might have been one of those who left the life of government administration, which had in this time become a somewhat dangerous occupation, and went to live as a monk in the mountains, wearing a birch-bark hat, wooden shoes, and clothes all in tatters. In fact his name, Han Shan, is taken from the mountains where he lived, and it means “Cold Mountain.” To retire as Han Shan did into Daoist or Chan (Zen) retreat into nature is a traditional path for Chinese scholar-officials, and particularly for politicians in disgrace. It was most famously charted by the great Six Dynasties Period poet Tao Qian (365 or 372 – 427 A.D.), whose work is known for its Daoist, romantic celebration of retreat from the cares of the world into nature, and by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei, who vacillated between his life as a powerful imperial official and his meditative life in Buddhist retreat to his country estate at Wang River. "After all those years like a beast in a cage / I've come back to the soil again," writes Tao Qian, and his celebration of spiritual values in nature made him (like Thoreau in America) a model for future generations of world-weary officials with spiritual aspirations, and certainly a model for Han Shan.

    The rugged mountains in which Han Shan lived are in present-day Fujian Province. He probably lived in a cave a day-hike away from the Guoching Monastery, where his friend Shi De (or “Pick Up”) lived. Shi De worked in the monastery kitchen and used to sneak food out to Han Shan in a hollow bamboo tube. Han Shan and Shi De were poet friends as well, and would go about extemporizing poetry. As a person, Han Shan was known for his eccentricity, his wacky, wild laughter, and for needling the monks at the monastery for being so self-serious. According to the preface of the collection, Han Shan and Shi De were sought out by the governor of Tai Prefecture, who was seeking physical and spiritual healing. Though the two escaped the governor like wild deer, disappearing into the mountains, the governor decided to collect the poems attributed to Han Shan, “inscribed on bamboo, wood, stone, cliffs and on the walls of peasant houses,” and added in a number of poems by Shi De, and thus the collection originated.


    I am launching into a translation of Han Shan not because he hasn’t been accurately translated before—he has—and not because he has not been well translated before, but because I believe he is a major world poet for whom several excellent alternative translations are necessary. Like other great world poets, such as Constantine Cavafy, Rainer Marie Rilke, and Pablo Neruda, his poetry is terrific enough that the individual poems need to be translated again and again until they work in English as the best poems they can be.

    Esthetically, I am attracted to many aspects of previous translations of Han Shan’s work. I like the chances the Gary Snyder takes with the translations, sometimes at the expense of full accuracy, but invariably making the poems better in the process. I have something of a quibble with Snyder’s use of slang, which sometimes makes his Han Shan seem old-fashioned, instead of fresh and contemporary. So, for example, Snyder writes about Han Shan’s search for immortality and vain attempt to brew elixirs of immortality: “[I] Tried drugs, but couldn't make Immortal.” Snyder has him complain that “Some critic tried to put me down,” and say that he moved to Cold Mountain to get away from his “tangled, hung-up mind.” In such lines Han Shan becomes a 1960’s hipster, which is interesting in its way, but it poses the same problems as would a translation of Han Shan into hip-hop slang or skateboarder slang. The slang ages fast, hip becomes un-hip, cool becomes uncool, and phat becomes old hat.

    I admire Red Pine’s terseness and occasional attempts to slip in a slant rhyme as a gesture towards traditional Chinese form, and I admire the narrative clarity of Burton Watson’s versions. They represent the extremes of concision and expansion, and at their best they do amazing work. Here is a Han Shan poem translated by both Red Pine and Watson:


    is there a self or not
    is this me or not
    this is what I ponder
    still seated against the cliff
    while between my feet green grass grows
    and on my head red dust settles
    I’ve even seen members of the laity
    leave fruit and wine by the bier

    trans. Red Pine

    Have I a body or have I none?
    Am I who I am or am I not?
    Pondering these questions,
    I sit leaning against the cliff while the years go by,
    till the green grass grows between my feet
    and the red dust settles on my head,
    and the men of the world, thinking me dead,
    come with offerings of wine and fruit to lay by my corpse.

    trans. Burton Watson

    Here you can clearly see the tight concision of the Red Pine version and the prosy directness of the Watson version. In the Watson poem, for example, the five-syllable closing line of the poem is rendered with 14 English syllables, whereas Red Pine uses just 7. The line literally means “spirit bed give wine fruit.” Red Pine’s translation is accurate and condensed like the original, and I like his use of “bier” to suggest the soul’s bed in the mountain, just the right term. On the other hand I also liked the fact that Watson’s translation got so clearly at the fact that passersby see the poet in his mountain resting place and see it as a deathbed because he has fallen so still in his meditation on and connection with nature. On the other hand, to do so he sacrificed a bit more of the letter to get at the spirit.

    I chose a slightly different path. Here is the version I did with Chou Ping:

            Do I have a body or not?
            Am I my body or not?
            Brooding on this,
            I let things pass, sitting against a cliff
            till green grass spills between my feet,
            red dust cakes my head,
            and common men, thinking me dead,
            leave wine and fruit by my bed.

    I had fun with the three end rhymes, the off-rhymed “this” and “cliff,” and the repeated end-word “not.” I preferred to have the poem move as one sentence after the opening questions of the first two lines. The stillness of each line in tension with the ongoing flow of the sentence felt to me organically connected to the stillness of poet and mountain in a world of flow and change.

    Is our translation “better” than that of Red Pine or Burton Watson? That’s not really the point, and it is a question for which Han Shan would have had only disdain. I don’t wish to be like his scholar, “totally ruined by books,” or like the living creatures he scorns because “they scheme to eat each other, / never understanding cause or effect, / blind babies asking what’s the color of milk.” I do hope that our translation is of a quality to stand alongside the fine work that they have done.

    I like to think of the translator making a poet’s words come to life in another language as the musician who activates the otherwise inert score of a composer. It isn’t music simply because the right notes are plunked out in the right order, because time is kept with a metronome. Han Shan has been a lucky composer. His work has been played elegantly by musicians with very different styles and abilities, from pure scholars to pure poets. And if I were to be honest I would have to admit that I choose to play his music on my instrument less for the enjoyment of the audience than for the pure pleasure of allowing his ancient spiritual music to sing through me.


    Two portraits of Han Shan and Shi De: