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Poems 146, 225, and 262

by Han Shan

translated from Chinese by Tony Barnstone

HAN SHAN (ca. late 8th–early 9th centuries)

Han Shan is the name given to the putative author of a collection of fascinating Tang Dynasty poems, more than three hundred in number, who may or may not have existed—at present there is no reliable way of deciding. The poems tell the story of his retreat to Cold Mountain to live a life of hermetic simplicity, seeking Taoist and Zen (Chan) enlightenment in nature. They are proselytizing poems, but in their vernacular speech, their clarity of focus, and their celebration of simplicity they embody the attitudes toward the world that they seek to teach, and in this achieve their greatest success. Strangely enough, Han Shan is not considered a major poet in China. The Chinese 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, in part because he has had marvelous translators, such as Red Pine, Burton Watson, and Gary Snyder. Perhaps he is a poet who, to echo Robert Frost’s famous snub of Carl Sandburg, “can only be improved in translation.” If one ignores the politics of literary reputation, though, a remarkable voice emerges from the poems of Han Shan, one quite rare in Chinese poetry. He is a cynic and an ironist, like Meng Jiao, and the two poets’ bitter cynicism seems to have damaged their reputation among readers in China. He is a strange mixture of dogmatist and freethinker, and one senses a personality behind the poems that is harsh and yet humorously irrepressible. Whatever the poetic value of his work in Chinese, there is much to appreciate in the riddling Buddhist thought-problems in these poems and in the way they capture the personality of a person who may or may not have ever lived.


My way passed ancient tombs,
tears and sighs long dispersed.
Yellow intestines poked from sunken graves.
Shattered coffins showed white bones
and there were leaning urns.
I found no hairpins when I stirred the ash
but wind came swirling
and spilled a mess of dust into the air.


The ocean stretches endlessly
with millions of fish and dragons.
They bite and eat each other up,
such foolish slabs of meat.
If the mind is not purged,
illusions rise like mist.
Our nature is bright like the moon.
It can shine without limit.


In this world people live then die.
Yesterday morning I was sixteen,
healthy with a strong life force.
Now I’m over seventy,
strength gone, body withered.
A flower in spring
blossoms at dawn. At night it dies.


Tony Barnstone is associate professor of English at Whittier College. The author of a book of poetry, Impure (University Press of Florida, 1999) and a chapbook of poems, Naked Magic (Mainstreet Rag, 2002), he has edited and/or translated several books of Chinese poetry and prose, including Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991), and The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996). His forthcoming books are The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books, 2004) and a number of textbooks for Prentice Hall Publishers.

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