I delight in the everyday Way, myself among mist and vine, rock and cave, wildlands feeling so boundlessly free, white clouds companions in idleness. Roads don’t reach those human realms, You on climb this high in no-mind: I sit her on open rock: a lone night a full moon drifting up Cold Mountain --Cold Mountain (Han Shan) 7th-9th Century
Han Shan was a Chinese poet from the T’ang Dynasty (618-907) and the actual history of this poet is unclear, but the legend is well-known. Han Shan lived in a hermitage on Cold Mountain and roamed the land writing poetry. The poems were collected by a governmental official who, recognizing his genius, felt like his writings needed to be preserved. Han Shan was said to be so connected to the mountain he eventually became known as the poet Cold Mountain before becoming a part of the actual Cold Mountain.
David Hinton explains in his book, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, that “according to the legend, Cold Mountain the poet was last seen when, slipping into a crevice that closed behind him, he vanished utterly into the mountain.” The only thing left of Cold Mountain the poet was his poems etched in the rocks.
Cold Mountain is one of the ancient Chinese poets known for writing poetry in the rivers-and-mountains style. David Hinton describes this type of poetry as:
“Fundamentally different from the writing that employs the ‘natural world’ as the stage or materials for human concerts, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. . . . [T]he Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental ways.”
River-and-mountains poetry is influenced by Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) practices and written in a straightforward way that explicitly focuses on the individual’s connection to the wilderness. In Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, David Hinton traces this tradition from its origins in the 5th century C.E. to the Sung Dynasty (13th century).
Each chapter in this book provides the reader with a brief history of a specific poet and then several poems by that demonstrate their distinct contribution to the river-and-mountain style. Two of my favorite poets, besides Cold Mountain (Han Shan), are Wang Wei and Yang Wan-li.
Wang Wei’s (701-761) poetry is heavily influenced by his Ch’an practices. Hinton explains, “Wang Wei’s poetry is especially celebrated for the way he could make himself disappear into a landscape, and so dwell as belonging utterly to China’s wilderness cosmology. In Ch’an practice, the self and its constructions of the world dissolve away until nothing remains but empty mind or ‘no-mind’”. Below is an example of Wang Wei’s poetry.
“Bird-Cry Creek” by Wang Wei
In our idleness, cinnamon blossoms fall. In night quiet, spring mountains stand empty. Moonrise startles mountain birds: here and there, cries a spring gorge.
Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) was one of the last great poets of the Sung Dynasty (96-1279). His poetry “attends to the passing moments of immediate experience with a resounding clarity, and this attention usually leads to a moment of sudden enlightenment.” Yang Wan-li is said to have opened up the river-and-mountains tradition to all its possibilities and provided the foundation for future poets.
Night Rain at Lusters Gap by Yang Wan-li
The gorge’s river all empty clarity, rain sweeps in, cold breezy whispers beginning deep in the night, and ten thousand pearls start clattering on a plate, each one’s tic a perfect clarity piercing my bones. I scratch my head in dream, then get up and listen till dawn, hearing each sound appear and disappear. I’ve listened to rain all my life. My hairs’ white now, and I still don't know night rain on a spring river.
The river-and-mountains style of poetry is also known as Shanshui poetry. Shan Shui is a style of traditional Chinese landscape painting that uses a simple brush and ink to depict the mountains and waters. This style of painting is also heavily influenced by Taoism. It is said that in this style of painting, much like Shanshui poetry, the human element plays a minor role compared to the vastness of the cosmos.
In describing Mountain Home, the publisher states that these “poems articulate the experience of living as an organic part of the natural world and its processes,” and that this style of poetry is as important now as it was when it was first written. I believe that this is true. These poems explore what it means to be in relationship with the natural world and will encourage you, the reader, to notice the interdependent nature of it all.
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Hi Mark, I don’t know what to say! In about 20 minutes time I will be having a video call with a Chinese calligrapher and artist about my attempts to illustrate some of my verses. I might be taking lessons soon. Exciting! I like the sound of David Hinton’s book; I will see if I can get a copy of it over here, not sure I could afford the postage from your book shop.
This post is brilliant, and again I must return to it. Talk soon! 🙋♂️
Hi Ashley, Good luck with the phone call! I can’t wait to hear about what happens and see some of your illustrations. I hear you about the postage about the book! That is along way to travel. The Bookshop site does have an overseas location. I am not sure if they have that book in stock. Have a great call and talk soon,
Hey, Mark. Superb essay as always. I’d never heard of “mountains and rivers poetry” until now, but now I’m on a quest to learn more. I checked out your bookshop storefront and man, there are so many books I want to explore there! I’m aware of shan shui painting (I have some Chinese reed calendars featuring that gorgeous style of landscape art) but had no idea there was also an accompanying “poetry sibling.” I’m going to dig into this and see what I can discover. Thanks for introducing me to this. I love learning about Asian poetry styles. 🙂
Hi Mike, This style of poetry is pretty new to me also. I listened to an interview with poet Arthur Sze and talked about how he spent years translating early Chinese poetry. He mentioned how this influenced his writing. I really like his work so it sent me down this rabbit hole. Hinton has also done a lot translation work and it turns out he lives fairly close to me. Who knew! His book on Hunger Mountain is on my list. I have spent many days hiking that mountain. Hope all is well! Talk soon,
Such a great mountain Home story about China’s beautiful scenery 👌🌷🙏
Wonderful lines of Asian History !! Thank you for sharing 👏👍🏻😊
Hi Thattamma, I am so glad that you enjoyed this post! I hope all is well and thanks for the comment.
Yes ,the story very inspiring lines! And nicely read 👌🌷😊
Thank you for sharing 🌷🙏🌷
Wow, that’s so interesting! I am going to look for the book.😊
Hi Aaysid, I am glad that you found the book interesting. It really enjoyed it and will come back to it often. if you are interested you can follow the link in the post to go to Bookshop.com they online store in and out of the US.
I have made a request at the local book shop, but I shall check this link out as well. Thank you so much. 😊
Wooow his disappearance is such a mystery
I know! Just melted into the mountain. Interesting!
I own a copy of this book and take great joy in reading the poems, like hidden gems.
Yes, it is a wonderful collection! I don’t know many people who own this book. Good to find someone else who enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment!