Archived Mountain Voices

One fine mountain poet

Allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Han Shan. He is among the finest mountain poets of any era in any language.

He may have lived during the T’ang Dynasty (circa 600-900 AD). “Han Shan” means “Cold Mountain”: the place and the poet were the same. He had a friend named Shih-te, and their laughter was sometimes heard late at night when they were drinking wine and telling stories.

Mostly, however, Han Shan preferred living alone on Cold Mountain, where he enjoyed walking and sitting and thinking about things. When some fleeting memory made him really happy he would throw back his head and laugh so loud Cold Mountain trembled. Han Shan also enjoyed writing poems. He wrote them on rocks and trees and walls. He wrote them about those things we also ponder whenever we’re walking and sitting and thinking about things.

Adopted as a totem figure by numerous poets (Gary Snyder being the most prominent) during the latter half of the 20th century, he has become the quintessential grumpy-and-reclusive happy-go-lucky wine-drinking nature-loving hand-clapping Zen-sharp mountain poet. (Charles Frazier, author of the novel Cold Mountain, also knew all about Han Shan.) He was an irascible old coot and, as you will see, one hell of a poet.

I made Han Shan’s acquaintance in the early 1970s and — during several year’s worth of long winter nights on Lands Creek — entertained myself by rendering perhaps 75 of his poems into eight-line entities attuned to my personal wavelength. (Unable to speak or read even one word of Chinese, I used various English translations collectively as prompts, especially those by Burton Watson.) In the process Han Shan became a friend. My wife Elizabeth’s drawing of a robe-clad Han Shan is tacked on my workroom wall.

About 1975 I distributed perhaps 15 hand-bound copies (typewritten sheets with cardboard covers) of a selection of my renderings titled Guffawing in the Wilderness: 13 Poems by Han Shan. In the spring of 1977 the poet and printer John Judson — a recipient of one of the hand-bound copies — surprised me by publishing 250 handset copies at his Juniper Press in LaCrosse, Wis., with Elizabeth’s drawing as a frontispiece.

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I thought I had either lost or given away all of my copies of the little 4-by-8-inch book years ago. But I recently chanced upon a copy hidden away in a box. At about the same time, Elizabeth purchased another one for me via the Internet for $40! Suddenly, I am the proud owner of two copies of my own book. In reality, of course, it’s Han Shan’s book. That said … listen to him speaking to you from Cold Mountain more than 1,000 years ago:


Are you looking for home?

Cold Mountain is the way.

Come close beside me.

Hear the pines whine?

See the old man there

lost in the old words?

That’s me. Been sitting here

forgetting the way back out.


Among clouds and streams

wandering the trails by day

sleeping this cliffside at night

here lives an idle man.

Swiftly the years run by

with nothing to lean on

and my mind empties …

still as fall waters.


Hiding at Cold Mountain

one lives with the land

day to day without bother.

This was meant to be

and the days flow.

A lifetime is a flint spark.

Heaven and earth shift …

I rest with the silent stones.


Cold Mountain transmogrifies.

Climbers here are always scared.

Moonshine glistens on dark water.

The windblown grasses hiss.

Snow clumps flower naked branches

and sweeping clouds foliate.

Rain and the mountain glimmers.

Don’t come in winter.


Seek consciously

and the cloudway’s gone … untraceable.

The loveliest peaks are precipices

and the broadest coves sunless.

Yawing ridges.


Impenetrable mists.

Still … you desire the cloudway?

Inward from sky to sky.


Is flesh real?

Who am I?

Wondering …


I lean time away against this cliff.

The grass grows between my toes.

The dust settles in my hair.

The worldly think me dead

and offer sacraments to my body.


The way to Cold Mountain?

There’s no sure trail.

The ice won’t melt

and the morning sun blurs in a haze.

How did I get here?

Well … your heart’s not mine

or you’d be here with me …

no trouble.


From this peak

vision is endless.

No one knows I sit here.

Moon in the cold spring.

That’s not the moon.

The moon is above.

I sing for you …

but in my song there is nothing.


walking these high trails alone

it was always cold mountain


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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