Tang Spirit Network - translations by Lan Hua of classic Chinese poetry by Li Bai, Du Fu and other great Tang poets

From Cold Mountain to the Streets of Manhattan

Sorry for the long hiatus since the previous issue of this newsletter. For many months I’ve been preoccupied trying to finish my new book, called The Life and Times of Richard Musto, which tells the true-life story of an 88-year old man who lives on the streets of New York. Although this story does not directly involve Chinese literature, in many ways it has been inspired and influenced by my interest in classical Tang poetry. For those of you who are interested, please click on the link below, where you can learn more about my new book and, if you feel so inclined, order a copy in advance of publication this coming spring.

Click here to visit Kickstarter and learn more about my new book about Richard Musto.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to resume publication of the Tang Spirit newsletter. This issue begins with my translation of two poems by Han Shan, also known as the Cold Mountain poet. Along with these translations, I’ll provide some literary and historical context that I hope will enhance your appreciation of the poems. And following that, I will return to the theme of my current work, and try to explain the connection, at least as I see it, between Han Shan and Richard Musto – a not so straight line drawn from Cold Mountain to the streets of Manhattan. 

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The poets and poems I am most drawn to are those surrounded with mystery and uncertainty. Sometimes the more these subjects come under scrutiny the more unknowable they seem. That certainly is the case with Han Shan, the Cold Mountain poet. He is, perhaps first and foremost, a figure of legend, revered in the traditions of Chan and Zen Buddhism; his image decorates temples and shrines throughout Asia. And a key part of Han Shan’s legend is a sense of deep mystery surrounding him. He lived in a cave in a remote part of Chekiang province. He wandered among the cloud-covered mountains and wrote his poems on rocks and tree bark he encountered along the way. He is the very epitome of the poet as recluse and spiritual seeker – someone who made a conscious choice to turn away from the comforts and routines of the mundane world.

It’s funny how
Cold Mountain path
Proceeds along
Without a trace of
Horses and carts

As streams
Come together
It’s hard to remember
All their twists and turns
And the layers of peaks
That loom in the distance

The dew weeps
Upon a thousand
Blades of grass
And the wind
Moans in sync
With the pines

Here the path leads
To a bewildering place
Where each form asks
Of its shadow
From whence
It has come





Han Shan’s poems may not be the most sophisticated or finely crafted in the Tang canon, but nonetheless I find them incredibly evocative and beautiful. In relatively simple language, he describes his life in seclusion, living in a place of bewilderment and clarity, at one and the same time. Here is a picture of the cave, perhaps better described as an overhang, where it is believed Han Shan lived and wrote his poems.

Cold Mountain

One of the most compelling features in these poems is the strong unity between the inner and outer landscapes in which the poet dwells. He speaks of them interchangeably. That is part of his discovery on Cold Mountain.

Under this
Massive cliff
I’ve chosen to live
The birds
Come and go
As they please
But other people
Never tread

Beyond the
Small front yard
All I possess is displayed
Among the white clouds
Clinging to distant peaks

Living here
In the mortal realm
Year after year
Watching nothing but spring
Change into winter
With evident ease

Instead of possessing
A conventional dwelling
Equipped with cauldron
And clock
It’s certain all
Such empty things
Confer no lasting





* * * * * *

As I mentioned above, part of the allure of Cold Mountain for me is the mystery and opacity of his life and poetry. The mystery deepens the more I’ve read and learned about him. To some extent this is true about all the great Tang poets because the remoteness in time and the sketchy nature of the historical record leaves many blanks to be filled in by the imagination. But it seems particularly the case with Han Shan because, as a poet revered in the Chan and Zen traditions, many stories have developed about him that are quite lovely and fanciful but highly questionable in veracity. The very idea that he wrote his poems on rocks and bark is a nice touch indeed, but likely pure apocrypha.

Not only is there a raging debate about whether Han Shan lived and wrote in the 7th or 8th century but some have questioned whether there was a single poet Han Shan or perhaps a series of hermit poets who lived in or around Cold Mountain and contributed to the oeuvre as we know it today. And the poems themselves only add fuel to fire; laden with both Buddhist and Taoist imagery, there is uncertainty about just what sort of monk Han Shan was, or whether he was a monk at all, as the translator Red Pine has gone so far as to suggest, perhaps he was merely a disappointed courtier who was forced into seclusion after the outbreak of the An Lu-Shan rebellion.

It is enough to make the head spin. But it brings me back to Han Shan himself (whoever he may have been) sitting in seclusion under the overhang of the massive rock. Sitting in seclusion is bewildering by its very nature; it’s a place where each of us goes from time to time, to contemplate our origin; a place where every form ends up asking its shadow from whence it has come.

* * * * * *

And so I return to where I started out this issue of the newsletter, hoping to explain something about the connection that I see between Han Shan and Richard Musto. Of course, in many ways, the two men couldn’t be more different – one of them lived as a recluse on a mountaintop and the other makes his home on the busy sidewalks of Manhattan. And Han Shan, whether he was a Taoist or Buddhist, was a deeply religious man, living in seclusion, as seeker of the true Way; whereas Richard Musto is a peddler and panhandler on the street-corner, whose day-to-day survival depends on nothing so much as his complete immersion in the flux and chaos of city life, without apparent devotion or dedication to any larger purpose in life.

But recently, as I’ve been reading and translating Han Shan’s poems, I've been thinking more about the spiritual dimensions of Richard Musto’s life. And I've come to understand that the old man has his own form of spiritual practice that consists precisely of this -- keeping things footloose and fancy free to the ultimate degree. It’s the very mantra he lives by. In fact, when I met him the other day in Midtown, these were the very words he had taped onto his boots. I kid you not. I took a picture to show you since some of you may be skeptical and think this is another bit of fanciful invention, just like the tales that have been told about Han Shan writing on tree bark. From Cold Mountain to Manhattan may not be so far indeed, for those who are seekers and free from conventional constraints.

Footloose and Fancy Free

Click here to visit Kickstarter and learn more about my new book about Richard Musto. With a contribution of $20 made through Kickstarter, you'll help us publish the first edition and receive a copy of the e-book later this spring.

You can also learn more about the book by visiting our website located here: www.lifeofmusto.com

Thanks and best regards, in the Tang Spirit --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)
March 2013

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The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.