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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #43 (October 25, 2005), page 16.

Chinaís beloved poet and hermit pulls no punches

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain

Translated by Red Pine

Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Paperback, 309 pages, $17.00

By Dave Johnson

People ask the way to Cold Mountain

but roads donít reach Cold Mountain

in summer the ice doesnít melt

and the morning fog is too dense

how did someone like me arrive

our minds are not the same

if they were the same

you would be here

In his note discussing this poem, translator Red Pine says, "A road does reach Cold Mountain Ö But then, the poem is about a different mountain."

Born around 730, the mysterious Chinese poet and hermit who called himself Han-shan (Cold Mountain) ignored fame, fortune, and a government gig to live in a cave at the base of Hanyen, or Cold Cliff, in Chekiang Province, a two-day hike from the East China Sea.

A Zen mystic, cranky contrarian, and observer of human foibles, Cold Mountain wrote his pithy, humorous, at times luscious poems on rocky slabs or tree trunks, shared them with visitors, and thought little of his reputation. It took a thousand years for him to be recognized as one of Chinaís greatest poets, and by then only 300 of his poems survived. But the enduring, if tattered, body of his work was enough to secure his place in the literary canon of a nation that has long treasured its poets and reclusive philosophers.

Since I escaped to Cold Mountain

Iíve lived on mountain fruit

what worries does life hold

this time Iím following karma

days and months are like a stream

time is but a spark

Heaven and Earth can change

I am happy here in the cliffs

In his high-spirited preface, Red Pine reports that Cold Mountain would often take a long dayís hike to Kuoching Temple at the foot of Mount Tientai. He adds that Ko Hung, a Taoist writer of the fourth century, called Tientai "the perfect place for would-be immortals to carry out their alchemic and yogic transformations." The site would later become one of the foremost centers of Buddhist teaching and practice in all of China.

It was here that Cold Mountain met Big Stick (Feng-kan) and Pickup (Shih-te), two other eccentric fellows who joined the poet to become the Three Hermits of Tientai, still popular in China for their devotion to each other and cavalier attitude toward the rigidity of religious dogma.

At the end of this collection of poems by Cold Mountain, Red Pine includes a few by Big Stick:

Actually there isnít a thing

much less any dust to wipe away

who can master this

doesnít need to sit there stiff

And a few by Pickup:

Partial to pine cliffs and lonely trails

an old man laughs at himself when he falters

even now after all these years

trusting the current like an unmoored boat

Another highly readable segment of this volume is its introduction by author and sinophile John Blofield, who eloquently places Cold Mountain in his lonely setting, yet points out that he probably led an active social life amongst his fellow mountain men and nearby villagers. The key, of course, was access to physical as well as metaphysical solitude. This combination of isolation and observation of everyday life makes Cold Mountainís poems so provocative and everlasting. Hereís a poem that hits close to home for this particular poet:

Disappointed impoverished scholars

know the limits of hunger and cold

unemployed they like to write poems

scribbling away with the strength of their hearts

but who collects a nobodyís words

may as well save your sighs

write them down on rice-flour cakes

even mongrels wonít touch them

Throughout the book, Red Pineís succinct and informative notes for each poem are core samples of the cultural, political, and literary history of China. In reference to the last poem, he announces that among his favorite restaurants in Hangchou is Koupuli (Dogs Wonít Touch Them), famous for its steamed dumplings.

As my colleague, Doug Spangle, made clear in a review in The Asian Reporter, Asian poetry doesnít have to be formal, somber, or lyrically stunning. It can also be a hoot. Iíll leave you with Cold Mountain doing stand-up:

All kinds of people exist under Heaven

different types of beauty prevail

Old Lady Chia had a husband of sorts

Huang-lao had no wife

the Wei sons all were handsome

Miss Chung-li was a fright

if she moved West

Iíd head East

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon