From New World Encyclopedia
Hanshan (left), Fenggan (center), and Shide (right). Ueno Jakugen, 18th century, Japan

Hanshan (Chinese: 寒山; pinyin: Hánshān; literally "Cold Mountain", fl. ninth century) also spelled Han Shan, was a legendary figure associated with a collection of poems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the Daoist and Zen tradition. He is honored as a Bodhisattva -figure in Zen mythology and in Japanese and Chinese paintings, together with his friends Shide and Fenggan. The little that is known about his life is inferred from his poems, which suggest that he was a minor official of noble birth who was unable to advance his civil service career because he was crippled by an injury or deformity; became involved in the An Shi Rebellion; then lived as a fugitive in a cave named 'Hanyan' (寒岩, "Cold Cliff") in the Heavenly Terrace (T'ien T'ai) Mountains, a day's travel from the founding home of the Tiantai Buddhist sect, Guoqing Temple.

Most of Hanshan's 600 poems were inscribed on tree trunks or rock faces, or written on the walls of caves or houses. After Hanshan's disappearance, a Daoist named Xu Lingfu (徐灵府), a native of Hangzhou, apparently collected about 307 of his poems from the various places where they were written. Hanshan’s evocative poems drew heavily on Buddhist and Daoist themes, often remarking on life's short and transient nature, and the necessity of escape through some sort of transcendence. He was not a Chan monk, and was critical of both Buddhists and Daoists; he appears to have been an independent thinker, unwilling to accept easy answers that he did not arrive at himself.


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). The collection of poems attributed to the "Hanshan-poet" may span the entire Tang Dynasty as Canadian historian and orientalist Edwin G. Pulleyblank asserts in his study Linguistic Evidence for the Date of Hanshan.[1] The Encyclopedia of China (1980-1993) gives his dates as around 712 and after 793. Jia Jinhua came to the conclusion, after a study of Ch'an-phrases in some 50 of the poems, that this particular group of poems may be attributable to the Ch'an-monk Caoshan Benji (840-901). He can definitely be dated to either the eighth or ninth century.


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

The name Hanshan means “Cold Cliff,” “Cold Mountain,” or “Cold Peak.” Hanshan is known in Japan as "Kanzan."

He lived alone in the rugged mountains in an area referred to as the Heavenly Terrace (T'ien T'ai) Mountains. He 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. At the time, he would have been 700 miles from the then-twin capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an. He is usually associated with two close friends ("The Tientai Trio," 天台三聖), Fenggan and Shide, who both lived in Guoqing Temple.

In the introduction to his translation of Hanshan's poems, Burton Watson writes, “If the reader wishes to know the biography of Hanshan, he must deduce it from the poems themselves.” Watson goes further to describe Hanshan as "a gentleman farmer, troubled by poverty and family discord, who after extensive wandering and perhaps a career as a minor official"[2] became a hermit.

Poem 44:[3])

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.

After Hanshan's disappearance, a Daoist 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; since Xu ceased to write after 825 C.E., the date of Hanshan's death must be after 825 C.E., and before Xu's own death in 841. Legend has it that Hanshan disappeared 12 years before he died, which would place his death between 837 and 851 C.E. No information exists on his date of birth. 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, that is mentioned in all of Hanshan’s poems, and that there is a hill outside Handan called, very similarly to himself (but with a different 'han'), 'Cold Mountain.' The evidence for thinking Hanshan was born into a noble family comes from the following poem:

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?

Privileges such as riding white horses and hunting with falcons near Pingling were reserved for nobility. It can also be inferred 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 Chinese 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 accomplished,
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 of this together with the two other poems below, Hanshan's best-known English translator, Red Pine, favors a biography that places him in the eighth and/or ninth centuries C.E., as a son of a noble family who, due to a foot deformity, never advanced very far in the bureaucracy. Implicated in the An Shi Rebellion also known as An Lushan Rebellion (756 to 763), 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 spent 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 An Lushan's rebellion.)

In his later years, Hanshan was considered to be an eccentric Daoist, saint, mountain ascetic, mystic, and wise fool. He enjoyed joking and teasing, and making his friends laugh.

Hanshan's Poetry

Most of Hanshan's poems were inscribed on tree trunks or stone faces, or written on the walls of caves or houses. Of the 600 poems he is known to have written at some point before his death, less than 307 were collected and have survived. Our authority for this is a poem he wrote:[4]

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

Hanshan's poetry consists of Chinese verse, in 3, 5, or 7 character lines; and never shorter than 2 lines, and never longer than 34 lines. 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.

Hanshan draws heavily on Buddhist and Daoist 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 'Greater Vehicle', and other times of Daoist ways and symbols like cranes.

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 influence is probably due to the high preponderance of Daoists in the area; the eminent Daoist Ge Hong acclaimed Tiantai as 'the perfect place for practicing the arts of immortality.'

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 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?

Hanshan was not a Chan monk, though Chan concepts and terminology sometimes appear in his work. He criticized the Buddhists at Tiantai, yet used many Buddhist ideas and formulations. He was not a Daoist either, as he directed criticism at them as well, but he used Daoist scriptural quotations, and Daoist language when describing his mountains, in his poems. He appears to have been an independent thinker, unwilling to accept easy answers that he did not arrive at himself.

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.


The poems have often been translated, by English orientalist Arthur Waley (1954) and American poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder (1958), among others. The first complete translation to a Western language was into French by Patrik Carré in 1985. There are two full English translations, by Robert G. Henricks (1990), and Bill Porter (2000).

The Poet Fenggan

(Traditional Chinese: 豐干; Simplified Chinese: 丰干; pinyin: Fēnggān; Wade-Giles: Fengkan; literally "Big Stick", fl. ninth century) was a Chinese Zen monk-poet who lived in the Tang Dynasty between 630 and 830 C.E.. According to legend, Feng appeared one day at Guoqing Temple (located by the East China Sea, in the Tiantai mountain range), a six-foot tall monk with an unshaven head, riding a tiger. From then on, he took up residence in the temple behind the library, where he would hull rice and chant sutras.

The few accounts of him record that he became close friends to Hanshan, and was the one who found the orphaned Shide, named him, and brought him to the temple. From these, and other anecdotes, it appears that Feng was the oldest of the three. The circumstances of his death are as murky as his life: the stories in which Feng is anymore than a name or foil for Hanshan cease after he healed a local prefect. It has been conjectured that Hanshan's Poem 50 refers to his death:

Show me the person who doesn't die;
death remains impartial.
I recall a towering man
who is now a pile of dust-
the World Below knows no dawn
plants enjoy another spring
but those who visit this sorrowful place
the pine wind slays with grief.

The Poet Shide

Shide (Chinese: 拾得; pinyin: Shídé; Wade-Giles: Shih-Te; literally "Pick-up or Foundling", fl. ninth century) was a minor Tang Dynasty Chinese Buddhist poet in Guoqing Temple, in the Tiantai Mountain range on the East China Sea coast; roughly contemporary with Hanshan and Fenggan, but younger than either. He was close friends with both and together they formed the "Tiantai Trio." Shide lived as a lay monk, and worked most of his life in the kitchen of Guoqing Temple.

An apocryphal story relates how Shide received his name: Once, when Fenggan was traveling between Guoqing Temple and the village of Tiantai, he heard some crying at the redstone rock ridge called "'Red Wall." He investigated, and found a ten-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his parents; and picked him up and took him back to the temple, where the monks raised him.

Shide wrote an unknown number of poems, of which 49 have survived. They are short; and rarely exceed ten lines. They are typically on a Buddhist subject, and executed in a style reminiscent of Hanshan's; Shide's Poems 44 and 45 have often been considered to be of Hanshan’s authorship. The two were especially good friends. The two inseparable characters, Hanshan and Shide, are a favorite subject of Sumiye painting by Zen artists. Hanshan’s features looked worn out, and his clothes were in tatters. He wore a head gear made of birch-bark, and his sabots were too large for his feet. He frequently visited the Kuo-ch'ing monastery at T'ien-tai, where Shide was a kitchen helper, and was fed with the remnants from the monks' table. He would walk quietly up and down through the corridors, occasionally talking aloud to himself or to the air. When he was driven out, he would clap his hands, and laughing loudly would leave the monastery." [5]


  1. Ronald C. Mioa (ed.), Studies in Chinese poetry and poetics, Vol I. (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1978, ISBN 0896445259).
  2. Burton Watson (trans.) Cold mountain: 100 poems by the Ta̓ng poet Han-shan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, ISBN 0231034490).
  3. All poems in this article are Red Pine's (also known as Bill Porter) translations, except where noted.
  4. The numbers refer to how many words in each line of the verse.
  5. D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (Third Series) (Munshiram Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 2000< ISBN 978-8121509572).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hanshan, and Red Pine. The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000. ISBN 9781556591402
  • Hanshan, and Burton Watson. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T'ang Poet Han-shan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. ISBN 0231034490
  • Hanshan, and Shide. View from Cold Mountain: Poems of Han-Shan and Shih-Te. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0934834261
  • Henricks, Robert G. The Poetry of Han-Shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990. ISBN 0585087253
  • Miao, Ronald C., and Marie Chan. Studies in Chinese poetry and poetics. Asian library series, no. 8. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1978. ISBN 0896445259
  • Rouzer, Paul. On Cold Mountain: A Buddhist Reading of the Hanshan Poems. University of Washington Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0295742687
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism (Third Series). Munshiram Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 2000. ISBN 978-8121509572


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