From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Asian Miscellany (11)—City and Countryside in Heian Japan

[a] Rurban RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For the next dozen or so posts, I have been asked to write about Heian Japan (794-1185). It is one of the most fascinating periods in world history, so I trust that the topics will "connect" for readers of the first ten "Asian Miscellany" posts (almost all of the topics—children, family, urban/rural—are the same). They work well for people interested in a brief introduction to Heian Japan or for people interested in comparative issues. Although an introduction to the Heian period in Japan would require its own introduction, I trust that a reading of these "Heian Japan posts (11-20 in Asian Miscellany) will encourage a few of you to read a bit of the literature of the period. 

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter
Urban and Rural in Heian Japan
Japanese life has always seen a profound divide between the city and the countryside; it is a gulf that remains strong to the present. Centers of power have shifted between the two over the course of Japanese history, with strong concentrations of military, political, or religious authority sometimes in urban centers and sometimes in towns that were only fishing villages a few years before they became the homes of military rulers. Such was the case after the Heian era, when in 1185 the center of government moved eastward to the coastal village of Kamakura. What would be called the Kamakura period (1185-1333) was a reaction against the sprawling life of the capital that dominated Japan for the previous four centuries of the Heian era (794-1185). To understand Japan well, it is necessary to understand this urban-rural divide, because it has influenced almost every aspect of Japanese life for fifteen centuries. 
[b] Connections RF

Capital and Province
To read the great literature of the Heian period, one might wonder whether life even existed beyond the excitement of Heian Kyō, the city that would become today’s Kyoto, near the center of Japan’s main island of Hōnshu. Works such as The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and the Tale of Flowering Fortunes—some of our richest sources for life in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries—are dominated by detailed descriptions of life in the capital. Characters (both fictional and historical) rarely traveled beyond the outer limits of the capital, and their journeys were described as struggles against both the elements and the limits of culture and refinement. It is not at all unusual in one of these Heian books to read of a character’s elaborate preparations (taking many days), arduous journey, and, upon returning home, days or even weeks of recuperation. In the most famous book of all, The Tale of Genji, just such a journey is described for Prince Genji. His actual destination was about a dozen miles away.


All the while that capital dwellers focused on the minutiae of court life, their lifestyles were being supported by changing economics and infrastructure in the provinces. Powerful families dominated the political process, and none was greater in Heian times than the Fujiwara clan. While the Fujiwara dominated the complicated give and take of court ritual, marriage, and alliance, they amassed enormous wealth that came from the growing estates in the provinces. These forces would, in time, turn the political process on its head and lead to a political structure based on military might and the hardy life of provincial elites. 

That Japan, four hundred years after the building of a glittering capital city crafted on the model of Tang dynasty China’s greatest city, would enter a new phase of history under the political structure of “tent government” (bakufu)—this was scarcely imaginable to people living through the height of Heian’s flowering fortunes. Only with a strong understanding of the relationship between rural and urban worlds can we make sense of it. 
[c] Rural Japan (today) RF

Rural Life in Heian Japan 
The estates of provincial Japan kept building, developing, and becoming more complex through the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. The situation would become increasingly obvious as time went on, but it is one of the wonders of historical study that what is readily apparent today—that large rural “farms” with what amounted to armed protection and enormous yields of grain would come to dominate the refined life of political figures in the city—was unimaginable until it was already an accomplished fact. The process started slowly. Called shōen, these rural estates grew from small settlements to enormously complex operations with many thousands of employees. Early document show the manner in which, through a combination of governmental initiative (relief from taxation and encouragement to create rice field property) and family enterprise, these manors grew exponentially in the early years of the Heian period. 

From that foundation, it was not long until the investment required protection, and the various estates began to employ forces that were trained in the use of weaponry and became linked to the “house” that employed them. The faint image of the future samurai begins to emerge from this very process. They were protectors, but also skilled practitioners of their fighting craft. They quickly became the force that best protected the estates from encroachment and allowed them to gain economic and, indeed, military strength. 

Life in the Capital 
Japan’s Heian capital was a splendid creation that emerged as the result of heavy borrowing of architectural ideas from China followed by reshaping in a distinctively Japanese manner. From the perspective of writers at the time, the location was as close to “perfect” as any could be. With a beautiful river flowing through its center and guarded by mountains, it possessed a combination of practical and cosmological advantages (following ideas that shaped the Japanese intellectual tradition) that were unknown to any previous city.

Life in the capital was hectic. Shopkeepers kept up a brisk trade in foodstuffs and other items that found their way to a wealthy clientele. The eastern half of the grid-style city bustled, while the western half came to be almost uninhabited, a result of a plan that (borrowed from China) took little account of significant population differences between island and mainland. 
[d] Path RF

Political and religious life—the life at court—dominates the literature of the period, and surely the enormous resources centered on wealthy aristocratic families affected the economic and social patterns of the capital city. No aristocracy can support itself, however, without significant help, and the city contained the personnel who would cook, clean, and wait upon all levels of court society. The only layers of “service personnel” who find their ways into Heian court literature are already members of a small slice of society that was “well-born.

The court attendants, however, are spoken of as unfortunate and lowly creatures unlucky enough not to have been born well. In fact, the layers of economic dependence stretch both ways, and make up the bulk of the capital city’s population in the Heian period. We know almost nothing of the “workers,” but the disdainful perspective of the elite can be seen clearly on almost every page of Heian literature.

***  ***

The historical sources shape and limit everything we can understand about any society in any era. In Heian Japan, those sources were almost exclusively written by members of a refined elite deeply attached to its position in society. We have glimpses, through various governmental documents, of life below the economic heights of Heain society, as well as from the burgeoning economic energy of the provinces. Everywhere they paint a picture of a life that was roiling with change, just below the surface of contented court elites.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter
[e] Tori RF

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