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  • Han Shan, Dharma Bums, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain
  • Ling Chung (bio)

It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields.

—Darwin, Journal

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.

—Han Shan

These are the two epigraphs that appear in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain published in 1997: one from Charles Darwin and the other from Han Shan (寒山), a legendary Chinese poet who lived in the Tang Dynasty (618–907).1 What does Frazier intend to reveal by juxtaposing two epigraphs in counterpoint: the West vs. the Orient, science vs. poetry, and empirical vs. transcendental?

Since the 1950s Han Shan’s Chinese name has been widely rendered in English as “Cold Mountain.” “Han Shan” which literally means “cold, chilly mountain” is his pen name and is also the name of a small mountain chain where he lived allegedly for seventy years until he was around one hundred. It is a chain of rock cliffs located in the Tiantai Mountains, in southeastern China. The rock cave in which Han Shan lived in the earlier years of his reclusion was located in Han Yan (寒巖) (Cold Cliff). Nor is Frazier’s Cold Mountain a fictional place: it is a peak of the Blue Ridge in the Pisgash National Forest in North Carolina, a part of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Frazier says that he grew up in the Blue Ridge and later lived there as an adult.2 It is a remarkable coincidence that the physical [End Page 541] as well as lexical Cold Mountain bears significant symbolic meaning to both Han Shan and Frazier. Frazier’s epigraph quotes the first two lines from the sixth of Gary Snyder’s English renderings of Han Shan, “Cold Mountain Poems,” which consists of twenty-four renderings.3

Snyder’s “Cold Mountain Poems” has been widely read by American college students and poetry lovers for more than half a century; it was first published in Evergreen Review in 1958. Even before it was published, poems 3, 8, 10 and 16 had already had an impact on an American novelist, Jack Kerouac, as evidenced by the fact that three of these four renderings were quoted in full in his novel The Dharma Bums, which was also published in 1958. This novel is regarded as largely autobiographical; it presents Kerouac’s own experiences from the fall of 1955 to the summer of 1956, focusing on his friendship with Gary Snyder as well as with other Beat figures. Kerouac was introduced to Snyder by Allen Ginsberg on 23 September 1955 in San Francisco, and during the afternoon Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Philip Whalen got together and drank beer at the bar the Place in North Beach before they attended an evening salon at Kenneth Rexroth’s home on the Eighth Avenue; “the four hit it off immediately, especially Gary [Snyder] and Jack [Kerouac].”4 Kerouac usually casted his own friends as major characters in his novels. The hero Dean Moriarty in On the Road is modeled after his close friend Neal Cassady, and Gary Snyder, “the zen poet,” is “immortalized as “Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.”5 In The Dharma Bums, Japhy is modeled after Snyder, Alvah Goldbook after Allen Ginsberg, Warren Coughlin after Philip Whalen, Henry Morley after John Montamery, and Rheinhold Cacoethes after Kenneth Rexroth. Ray Smith the narrator is supposed to be Jack Kerouac himself.6

In section three of The Dharma Bums, the first Han Shan poem that Japhy Ryder recites to Ray Smith is a version of Snyder’s eighth poem. Jocob Leed has studied the manuscripts of this poem and finds that Kerouac must have used a handwritten text, probably Snyder’s second draft from the “Original Draft,” but not the final version.7

The draft of Snyder’s poem is quoted fully in The Dharma Bums; a part of it depicts the fascinating mountain scenery, a “long gorge choked with scree and boulders, wide creek and mist-blurred grass, moss is slippery though there’s been no rain, pine sings but there’s no wind.”8 After they discuss...


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