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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Asian Miscellany (12)—Children in Heian Japan

[a] Reflections 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
Children in Heian Japan

Children have always been the lifeblood of Japanese society. In traditional times, the focus was relentlessly on having the right proportion of sons and daughters in a family, and the assumption was that income came from the land. On the other hand, Japanese history is among the most fascinating in the world, in that—at least for a brief glimmer of time in the tenth and eleventh centuries—the most powerful family in all of Japan focused on the birth of girls. For the most part, however, the power dynamics of patrilineal (wives live with the husband’s family) relationships dominated Japanese life in and beyond the Heian period. The experiences of boys and girls were often starkly different, whether they were born in the heart of the capital or the most distant provincial villages. 

[b] Afield RF
Rural Childhood 
The stark reality of rural life dominated Japanese childhood, and the experience of being young was influenced powerfully by whether a child was born male or female. In the starkest sense, boys would work the fields and girls would be married to husbands in other villages. The reality of agricultural life meant that all but the youngest members of a farming village were engaged in some aspect of productive activity. In Heian times, almost any form of rural schooling was impossible for any but the children of elite families. The cruel logic of marriage politics also meant that young women were raised, as the saying throughout East Asia often went, to be daughters-in-law for the families of other villages. Young boys were seen differently. They were a force of continuity, but their labor was required in the fields as soon as they were physically able.  

The associations that many people today have with childhood—game playing and the beginnings of formal education—were not to be found among the vast majority of Heian children. On the other hand, no good historian would deny the ongoing fascination of childhood for parents and children—the exploration and game playing between parents, siblings, and children that has been a part of almost all family encounters in human history. The structural realities of gendered, rural childhood, however, differ markedly enough to make the mental association of “childhood” one that the reader should consider seriously before making assumptions about life in Japan a thousand years ago.  
[c] "Child drink" RF

Urban Childhood 
For the vast majority of people below the level of the aristocracy, rural and urban childhood experiences in Heian Japan differed only in setting and degree. The marriage politics of the age had children linked from youth as future husbands and wives, and a shopkeeper’s son was just as decidedly marked for his future role as the son of a farmer in a distant rural village. The daughter of a powerful or moderately wealthy urban family was just as clearly raised for marriage (taught to be a proper daughter-in-law who would bring respect to the family) as the young girl in the provinces. In short, for the vast majority of people in Heian Japan, childhood was marked by gender differences in profound ways, and to lesser degrees by the particularities of their families’ economic situations. The daughter of a farmer or shopkeeper was going to be married to outsiders; the sons were going to take over “the business.” None of this is unique to Japan. Indeed, it is a constant, with few exceptions, in the medieval world, from Europe to Asia.  

[d] Guardian deity of children RF

Childhood in History and Literature 
The preceding thoughts, while somewhat speculative, are based on both historical records and our understanding of anthropological data from East Asia. We do, however, have very specific records of a particular kind of aristocratic childhood in Heian Japan. In all the world, only China rivals Japan for a full-throated “telling” of what childhood was like in enormous detail for even a fraction of the population. To be sure, this fraction was the most wealthy, powerful, and self-absorbed fragment of society. Consider, though, that for almost all of the rest of the world—including Europe—we know very little about these matters. The most resonant source for Heian Japanese childhood is the text that often has been called the world’s first novel, the Tale of Genji. Consider one of the opening passages of the narrative, in which Prince Genji—the son of an emperor and a woman who was “not of the first rank, but whom the emperor loved more than any of the others”—makes his way about the Heian court. In the midst of literary artistry, the portrait of a gifted young boy is developed. 

          It may have been because of a bond in a former life that she bore the emperor  
          a beautiful son, a jewel beyond compare. The emperor was in a fever of 
          impatience to see the child, still with the mother’s family; and when, on the 
          earliest day possible, he was brought to court, he did indeed proved to be a 
          most marvelous babe. The emperor’s eldest son...[it was assumed] would one 
          day be named crown prince; but the new child was far more beautiful…The new 
          child was a private treasure, so to speak, on which to lavish uninhibited affection.[1] 

The story builds from there, and creates both the sense of expectation and literary tension that has led several interpreters to call this Heian masterpiece the world’s first great “psychological” narrative.  

          He now lived at court. When he was seven he went through the ceremonial 
          reading of the Chinese classics, and never before had there been so fine a
          performance. Again a tremor of apprehension passed over the emperor—might 
          it be that such a prodigy might not be long for this world?...Not the sternest of 
          warriors or the most unbending of enemies could have held back a smile. Kokiden  
          was reluctant to let him go. She had two daughters, but neither could compare 
          with him in beauty. The lesser ladies crowded about, not in the least ashamed to 
          show their faces, all eager to amuse him, though aware that he set them off to 
          disadvantage. I need not speak of his accomplishments in the compulsory 
          subjects, the classics and the like. When it came to music his flute and koto 
          made the heavens echo—but to recount his virtues would, I fear, give rise to a
          suspicion that I distort the truth.[2] 

Although these lines can hardly be said to evoke the average Heian childhood, they are without a doubt among the most famous in all of Japanese history. Prince Genji’s fictional narrative, either as a literary marker or vague ideal (not to mention warning—for the fairest child often has been said to have an uncertain future) gives a powerful sense of the aesthetics of childhood in the world of Heian Japan. 
***  *** 
 Today, some historians go so far as to say that the concept of childhood was “invented” in the last few centuries. They have a point. All over the world, the line between growing up and laboring was vague, at least for the vast majority of families in history. On the other hand, various narratives—as “unrepresentative” as they might be of the majority of the population—speak to a kind of indulgence, playfulness, and verve that has always been associated with youth. We should never forget that these moments could appear just as easily in a distant rural hamlet, even for a brief, happy instant of family relaxation, as in the court of the emperor of Japan. 

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] Genji RF
[1] Murasaki Shikibu [Edward Seidensticker, translator], The Tale of Genji (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 3-4.

[2] The Tale of Genji, 13-14.

Murasaki Shikibu [Edward Seidensticker, translator]. The Tale of Genji. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

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