Caroling and Nancy by Elizabeth, 2015Han Shan and Shih Te by Liang K'ai

Nancy Ann James - Han Shan and Shih Te

Caroling and Nancy laughing, to the left. Someday I'll continue this page for our adventure, my dear friend. Yes, see Nancy Ann James. For 2017 information see the Nancy Ann James Caring Bridge site.

Today, let's move on to the immortals, Han Shan and Shih Te laughing, to the right. For me, they have long been our spiritual dream world counterparts or archtypes. Dreamworld associations aren't linear or chronological or even particularly explicable. So here they are, mostly as I encountered them.


Zen Ink Painting. On separate paths, both Nancy and I grew into Zen during the 1950s and following. I specifically studied Zen ink painting for my own work and for my MFA written thesis. Somewhere along the way, I saw paintings of Han Shan and Shih Te and read their legends. One by Liang K'ai is illustrated in my thesis with an indestinct photo. Here's the text:

"The subjects are two famous monks. By some they are called "hsien", Taoist immortal spirits that inhabit the mountains, wander forever, and sometimes come down to steal a living from the towns. But some say the monks were real. Han-shan means "cool hill". Shih-te means "picking-up". According to the story, they lived in a grotto near a monastery in Che-chiang. Han-shan was a poet. He often is shown explaining a scroll to his friend Shih-te who holds a broom and is occupied with material well-being. Supposedly they conversed in their own language, nonsense to anyone else, and so were considered madmen.

"The composition of the picture is in the Zen spirit of plastic invention. The ground and cliff make an angle enclosing a cone of empty space in a diagonal across the picture, strongly playing against the reach of Han-shan, writing on the cliff. It serves to link him with the sky and chink Shih-te down in the earth, appropriately."

Their story always reminded me of me and Nancy. I'm the reclusive artist who prefers to be out in nature; I relate to Han Shan. Nancy is the social person, nourishing to almost everyone she meets; she is like Shih Te.


Nancy visited me in the San Francisco Bay area where we went to a Zen workshop called Hiking and Haiku. The co-leaders of the retreat reminded me of a Han Shan and Shih Te pair. Nancy's photos showed them facing the four directions orthogonally, enhancing the poetry of the legend in our lives.

We visited two graves on an overgrown hillside at Green Gulch. One was for Alan Watts. The other was for Nancy's son Christopher Pirsig. Another dichotomic pair.

The idea was still in my imagination. I had described it to Nancy but it had no reality for her.

In 1996 Nancy sent me a book by the Zen priest leader, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The title is "Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains". In 2017 I discovered that on page 28 he quotes the "Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain (Han Shan)".


In a book named The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen on page 103 is a mention of calligraphy on page 104 by Gempo of one line of a Hanshan (Japanese Kanzan) poem.


On Nancy's birthday I gave her a tiny book of poems that I had for years. A Shambala Pocket Classic, Cold Mountain, Han-shan, 101 poems translated by Burton Watson. The cover has a picture from an inkstone case of Han Shan with his prayer beads and Shih Te with his broom. As the introduction says "two grotesque little men guffawing in the wilderness". Months later Nancy said she had the book by her bedside, enjoying reading a few poems before sleep.

Later, for my birthday, I received it back twofold. Nancy had found and ordered for herself a larger version of the book with the same poems, but the notes instead of appearing at the end of the book, were at the bottom of the page on each related poem. She had ordered one for me too. The book's frontespiece is a detail of the Liang K'ai painting of Han-shan and Shih-te reproduced on this page.


For my last birthday, Nancy gave me a book: Cold Mountain Poems, Twenty-Four Poems by Han Shan translated by Gary Snyder. They were first published in 1958 about the same time I was getting to know Zen and Han Shan mostly through art. Included is a recording of a lecture by Gary Snyder in 2012. Listening to it in 2017, I'm putting together so many diverse threads of this journey. He says he isn't the American Han-Shan.


I wish I could see more artworks of the friends, read the other 200 poems by Han Shan that I have not seen translated into English, and find out more about Shih Te, who also wrote poems.

In 2017, trying to reconstruct how it wove into our friendship, I'm struck by the difference between my 1959 translation of Han-shan as "cool hill" and the prevalent alternative as "cold mountain". Recently I listened to Gary Snyder's talk, in which he questions the words "Cold" and "Mountain" because he found that Han Shan's location was subtropical and the rise in elevation was about 30 feet. This incongruence has tended to make me trust my original contact with the legend.

Notes and Links

Found this pinterest page about them: The Chinese poet-sage Kanzan is depicted with his scroll, and the Daoist sage Jittoku with his broom. They were Taoist Immortals. Lived near the sacred mountain Tiantaishan during Tang.

On this page of paintings:, is a detail of Hanshan and Shide attributed to Liang Kai.

Visions of Acupuncture with Dr. Wu.

See Minnesota Art and Travel pages or Caroling Personal.

Thanks to Liz Omlulu for the photo of Caroling and Nancy laughing.

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