The poetry and life of Cold Mountain


Han Shan as depicted by Soga Sho-haku

Image courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Perhaps you’re looking to start fresh this new year, to shrug off some old baggage and simplify your life, to gain a deeper clarity of why you’re really on this earth.

In that case, you might want to check out a documentary that airs this Sunday at 10pm on TPT2. It’s called “Cold Mountain.”

Co-created by Mike Hazard and Deb Wallwork, the half-hour film is a look at the mysterious Chinese poet Han Shan, or “Cold Mountain” (no one knows his birth name – he took the name of the place where he lived). Han Shan lived in the Tang Dynasty, about 1200 years ago, but his words feel reminischent of someone seeking refuge from our harried 21st century lives:

In my first thirty years of life

I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

Walked by rivers through deep green grass

Entered cities of boiling red dust.

Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;

Read books and wrote poems on history.

Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:

I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

– Han Shan poem, translated by Gary Snyder

According to lore, Han Shan wrote poems for everyone, not just on paper but on trees and stone walls. His words were void of witty intellectual references that many poets of the day used to show off their learning. He was a friend of the local monks, but did not live among them. Instead he preffered the caves in the mountainside.

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,

Already it seems like years and years.

Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams

And linger watching things themselves.

Men don’t get this far into the mountains,

White clouds gather and billow.

Thin grass does for a mattress,

The blue sky makes a good quilt.

Happy with a stone under head

Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

– Han Shan poem, translated by Gary Snyder

Hazard and Wallwork deftly capture both the fast paced noisy life of a Chinese city, filled both with the exotic (a bowl of live scorpions) and the ever-familiar (a small baby’s smile).

The film takes its viewers on a pilgrimage to Cold Mountain itself, interspersed with the words of Han Shan’s modern-day fans (poets Gary Snyder, Jim Lenfestey, Burton Watson, and Red Pine). And on the pilgrimage we meet “the butterfly woman,” someone who appears to be almost a spiritual descendant of Han Shan himself, choosing not to speak or write, but only smile and welcome all who journey to Cold Mountain.

An interesting twist in the documentary is the use of animated cartoons by John Akre. Akre takes the words of Han Shan’s poetry and sets them to images that are strikingly familiar to a Twin Cities audience. When Han Shan speaks of all those who’ve fallen in battle, there’s an image of the Fort Snelling Cemetary. When he speaks of battles and power, we see a colorized image of police officers in riot gear outside the St. Paul Excel Center during the Republican National Convention. Han Shan may have lived 12 centuries ago, but his words ring true even today.

Cold Mountain airs Sunday night at 10pm on TPT2. It will be rebroadcast on January 9 at 9pm on TPTMN.