How verses by an obscure Tang hermit inspired an American countercultural movement
A thousand years after the death of the cave-dwelling poet Hanshan (寒山) in the Tiantai Mountains of east-central China, American writer Gary Snyder came down from a summer repairing trails in Yosemite, cracked open a volume of the Chinese poet’s verses in the library of UC Berkeley, and found a striking mirror of his own disillusionment with modern society.
“Men ask the way to Cold Mountain,” goes one of Hanshan’s poems. “If your heart was like mine, you’d get it and be right here.” In 1958, two decades before Snyder would win the Pulitzer Prize for his own poetry, he published translations of 24 of the reclusive Tang dynasty poet’s works—casting Hanshan into the American imagination, and leading a ragtag group of American writers stumbling along Hanshan’s path.
Although rarely found in collections of Tang poetry, and considered obscure in today’s China, Hanshan is often introduced to American readers through the works of the Beat writer Jack Kerouac. In Kerouac’s thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Dharma Bums, which he dedicated to Hanshan, the protagonist visits his friend Japhy (who represents the real-life Snyder) in a small Berkeley shack, and learns about the poet: “Han Shan you see was a Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.” The protagonist bends over Japhy’s shoulder and watches him read the “big wild crowtracks” of Chinese characters: “Who can leap the world’s ties and sit with me among white clouds?”
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Poet’s Peak is a story from our issue, “Tuning Up.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.