Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #1

Disclaimer: Please note for the purposes of these blog posts, I will generally be rendering Japanese names in the Western style: given name followed by family/clan name. I'll be doing my best to render the Japanese terms into something more familiar in English, but in some cases I'll just define the term and use the native Japanese word to avoid awkward translation.

Welcome to the first of my blog posts on the Heian Jidai (lit. the age of tranquility and peace). This is a period in Japanese history that, to my anecdotal experience at least, seems considerably less familiar to Westerners than the later samurai-ruled shogunate periods. While the Heian era certainly wasn't free of any and all bloodshed, it was a considerably more stable time in Japanese history than many of the following eras. There were few significant military conflicts until the bloody end of the period, at which point the full of rise of the warrior class, the samurai, was complete.

So, what defines the Heian era? Chronologically, it is covers the years 794 to 1185 A.D. The year 794 marked the move of the imperial capital to Heian-kyo (lit. the peace and tranquility capital, now the modern city of Kyoto). Incidentally, Heian-kyo was the capital of Japan for over a millennium (794 to 1868, with only a brief interruption in in the 12th century). Without getting too bogged down in the complex political details, the basic reason for the move of the capital involved restoring centralized authority to the government by moving it away from the power bases of various factions including competing noble families, Buddhist temples, and the like. The city itself is worth multiple blog posts, but I'll leave it at that for now.

How can we so definitely mark the end of the Heian period so precisely to 1185? That's the year when the bloody Genpei War ended. Victories in this war against imperial-aligned factions would allow Yoritomo Minamoto to officially establish the first shogunate in 1192 (it unofficially was in place from 1185). This would completely shift control of the country out of the hands of the bureaucratic officials and the emperors and instead into the hands of the shoguns (hereditary military leaders).

During the Heian period, Japan began to pull away from its constant contact with China. Although it was far from the complete isolationism that would mark later periods of Japanese history, the separation did allow Japanese culture to take elements imported from China, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and certain governmental patterns and fuse them with their own native elements to create a distinctly Japanese take.

The overall success of the centralization plan and its accompanying goal of strengthening the empire is  marked by political irony. The emperor had limited power even before the events of the Genpei War. The real power was in the hands of the powerful Fujiwara clan who influenced the throne through intermarriage along with the holding of powerful regent positions (again, something I'll cover in detail in future blog posts) and other high court positions.

Politics and court life helped define the Heian era. Many of the most famous figures from this period aren't powerful warriors but bureaucrats and public officials. Under the cultural influence of the powerful Tang dynasty of China but with their own unique cultural spin, a complex bureaucracy grew up. Nobles aspired to governmental positions that could be gained through education and merit rather than a strong sword arm. Of course, as in any system, the theory and practice often differed even before considering the issues with social class limitations. That being said, the level of respect one could gain as a government official is demonstrated by Michizane Sugawara (845-903). A scholar, official, and poet of some renown (I'll definitely be revisiting him in a future blog post), he was posthumously deified as Tenjin-sama, the kami (roughly the spirit/god, we'll talk about kami more in the future as well) of scholarly work. To this day in Japan, there are shrines dedicated to Tenjin-sama that many, students in particular around exam time, go to pray.

Seimei Abe (921-1005) a leading onmyoji (a type of astrologer, divination specialist, spiritual adviser, and calendar expert) has become a legendary figure. While some of this is do to the superstitious nature of the times and his abilities obviously being inflated, it is important to note that being an onmyoji was a government position. He was a real-life professional "magical" bureaucrat who, while not achieving deification like Michizane Sugawara, still has gained a major place in Japanese history and folklore.

I mention those two examples to contrast them with the main Japanese historical figures from later period. Scholars, astrologers, and bureaucrats tend to define the shining lights of the Heian era rather than the generals and famous warriors that more mark many of the centuries that follow this period.

Similar to the British Regency that I discussed on Thursday, the Heian era was a time of great cultural flowering. Aristocratic culture placed a high emphasis to the ideals of beauty, scholarship, and elegance. Much of modern Japanese art style can be traced to some of the painting trends starting during this period.

 A well-educated person was expected to be able to produce poetry on demand. The lingering influence of Chinese culture had the men focused more on Chinese writing, but educated aristocratic women began to pen some of the great ancient works in Japanese.

The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by one Lady Murasaki, is considered by some the world's first real novel. The story follows the life and many love affairs of a nobleman (aristocratic Heian court life definitely wasn't without its torrid aspects). It is striking both in its rich portrait of Heian-era court life and its explorations of the psychologies of its characters.

Unfortunately, like many eras in history, the cultural flowering of the upper classes wasn't always reflected in the much broader lower classes. Economic mismanagement throughout the centuries would create issues. Though, many of the lower classes were still often faring better due to the lack of the constant bloody civil wars that defined much of later eras. This is a dark contrast to the Heian period, where the influence of Buddhism had even lead to the general abolition of capital punishment.

Political conflict and further decentralization would set the stage for the rise of the samurai and the feudal periods that would follow.

With nearly four centuries of history, culture, and people being covered 500-1000 words at a time, I'm doubtful that this blog series will end anytime soon. I hope you will enjoy journeying with me through the age of tranquility and peace.


Andre Jute said...

This is the good stuff, Jeremy, and I'm so glad you haven't succumbed to the temptation of soundbites!

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks, Andre.