Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace #2: The Mistresses of Literature

Today, I present the second in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for a brief overview of the Heian era.


One of the most famous (and influential) cultural artifacts of the Heian era is the Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji). Some people have made the argument that Genji is the world's first true novel. Before we discuss either the story or its author, Murasaki Shikibu, in future posts, I  wanted to discuss the general status of literature in Heian culture.

It is striking that many  famous works of ancient Japanese literature and artistic achievement are associated with the Heian era and, more unusual given cultural trends around the world at the time, many major literature achievements are associated with women. The former is easy enough to explain. Though Heian Japan was still  under the long shadow of the former Chinese Tang dynasty, it was a period of relative isolation with only a marginal amount of direct contact between the two countries. The Japanese had turned inward. In a contrast to earlier periods, a stable population of aristocrats had more time to devote their attention to the writing arts. There was also a certain practical consideration at work. Although there's some contradictory evidence, the bulk of historical evidence suggests that the Japanese did have a true writing system until the importation of Chinese characters in the the 4th century. It's hard to have a literature tradition without actual writing.

I don't want to go off on too much of a linguistic tangent (and this tangent simplifies things), but anyone who has studied both any Chinese dialect and Japanese is struck by the stark language differences. They are in completely different language families. It's not like a French versus Spanish difference, it's more like a French versus Arabic difference. Suffice it to say, Chinese characters make for more difficult rendering of the native Japanese language. For one thing, they aren't, for the most part, phonetic. This makes them great for making Chinese dialects intelligible, but it makes learning them difficult and applying them to other languages even harder. 

By the Heian era, script-based phonetic systems better adapted to the Japanese language were developed, but even to this day, Japanese writing is a mix of Chinese characters (kanji) and the derived hiragana and katakana phonetic systems. Despite the development of these more arguably "Japanese" writing systems, the continued obsession with all things Chinese (ironic given the termination of official contact with China) led to an high Japanese cultural value being placed  not just the Chinese writing system, but the language itself. An educated Heian man grew up on Classical Chinese books written in Classical Chinese. Even the official court documents were mostly written in Chinese. Imagine if Shakespeare was expected to write all his plays in Latin.

The rights and status of women had been somewhat reduced in many ways compared to earlier eras, but Heian-era aristocratic women were still educated. They were not, however, generally educated in Chinese. There were exceptions though, such as Murasaki Shikibu.

Murasaki Shikibu, the world's first novelist?
(Picture from the Boston Museum of Fine Art)

Another factor involved was the philosophical concern about what proper writing and literature should even include. Although all educated people, men or women, were expected to be masters of many forms of poetry, there was a general anti-fiction bias among many men. Keep in mind that records of folk tales, legends, and the like were not considered to fall under the realm of fiction. In The Tale of Genji, there is even a scene where an educated man expresses his disdain for fiction and an educated women engages him in a mild debate about the idea.

Lastly, Heian-era aristocratic women, although free in many ways (such as possessing a surprising amount of sexual freedom), were still very dependent on their position and status of the men in their lives. In fact, records of that time rarely bothered to note the names of many women, even those of high status. For example, the name associated with the authorship of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, is actually a nickname. Denied access to many intellectual spheres of society, many women chose to channel their efforts into things like literature. 

The combination of the above-mentioned factors lead to these women having a major presence in Japanese classical literature, and even managing to preserve their reputation despite several centuries of sexist revisionism that tried to strip authorship of things like Genji from the female authors.

Besides vernacular novels such as The Tale of Genji, many women also spent time writing in daily diaries. Indeed, so many of these diaries (including such writings from Lady Murasaki) have survived into the modern era they constitute an entire area of classical Japanese study in of themselves. In addition, many women also wrote what we would basically classify as themed essays along with some other random information (such as court gossip). These generally are now classified as falling into the so-called zuihitsu genre.

Despite Lady Murasaki's fame, and surviving diary entries, the most famous diarist and zuihitsu writer was actually a rival at court (though they never met directly as Sei left shortly before Murasaki's arrival at court), Sei Shōnagon (yes, this is another nickname). Her Pillow Book arguably defined the genre. I will be discussing both of these women and their works in more detail in future posts.

Sei Shōnagon, semi-feisty rival of Murasaki Shikibu
(Picture from Boston Museum of Fine Arts)


Marie Dees said...

Great post. I'm re-reading an historical mystery series set in Japan and would love to find more stories to read.

J.A. Beard said...

Do you have a particular era preference?

I.J. Parker has written tons of Heian-era mysteries (I have a link to her web site on sidebar).

E. P. Beaumont said...

Across the gulf of a thousand years and through the veil of translation, the author of the 'Pillow Book' made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe: there's a passage where she declares flatly that ugly (hairy) men should not sleep at midday where anyone could see them. No question but that she knows what she thinks! And then her remarks on 'Hateful things' among which (if I recall aright) she numbers: someone using one's ink stick and brush, and leaving them in disarray. Yes!

J.A. Beard said...

Indeed! Such personality. It felt like a direct insight into a woman dead for 1000 years; a woman who seems like she'd be ever so entertaining to chat with.