The legend of Hehe icons Han Shan and Shi De | Updated: 2019-02-19

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A sculpture of Han Shan and Shi De at Hehe Culture Park in Tiantai county, Taizhou, Zhejiang province. [Photo/WeChat account: heherenjian]

Han Shan and Shi De were two hermit poets during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) who stayed at Guoqing Temple in Tiantai Mountain, Taizhou, Zhejiang province, and are now considered icons of Zen Buddhism.

As an adult, Han Shan retreated to the cold mountain of Tiantai Mountain, where he eventually got his name Han Shan, which means cold mountain in Chinese. Shi De was picked up by Monk Feng Gan of Guoqing Temple just after birth, hence his name Shi De, which means to be picked up in Chinese.

Shi De worked in the kitchen of the temple after becoming a monk. He often recited poems with the reclusive Han Shan and gave him leftovers from the temple after they became acquainted. Upon seeing this, Monk Feng Gan allowed Han Shan to come into the temple and work together with Shi De in the kitchen.

From then on, the two men, who were deeply accomplished in Buddhism and literature, were inseparable, spending their time in the serene nature of Tiantain Mountain, reciting poetry and finally writing the still revered collection of poems, Encounters with Cold Mountain.

The two men are regarded as representatives of friendship in Chinese folk culture. In artistic depictions of the two, Han Shan is often shown holding a lotus, while Shi De is holding a box, since the pronunciation of  lotus ("荷" in Chinese character) and box ("盒" in Chinese character) in Chinese are similar to that of harmony and combine ("和" and "合" in Chinese character). They often appear carefree, laughing and in shabby clothing, reflecting their happy nature and their rejection of the need for material goods.

The legend of Han Shan and Shi De has spread across the world since the release of their collected poems, Encounters with Cold Mountain, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Their works have been translated into Japanese, English, French and other languages. The two are iconic figures influencing early Zen Buddhists in Japan and Korea since the 14th century to 20th century.

In the 11th year of Emperor Yongzheng's reign of the Qing Dynasty (1733), the emperor officially designated Han Shan as the holy saint of harmony and Shi De as the holy saint of combine.