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Friday, January 6, 2012

Asian Miscellany (14)—Entertainment in Heian Japan

[a] Light entertainment 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

Entertainment in Heian Japan

Entertainment in Heian Japan ranged from the festival celebrations of planting and harvest in the provinces to elaborate ceremonies in the capital and at court. As is true throughout the world, performances of various kinds dominated the world of entertainment. These could be found in such disparate examples as traveling storytellers in marketplaces to the private writing of diaries among aristocratic women. Both created a storytelling environment of very different sorts, but fit into the broad category of entertainment. 

[b] Irrigation RF
Rural Festivals
Several historians have postulated that the earliest entertainments—and the origin of festival dates found in later calendars—were the great agricultural celebrations that marked the time of planting after the long winter, as well as the harvest festivities to celebrate the end of another agricultural year. Written records of such matters are sparse, of course, but it is not difficult to see a patterning of farming life that made use of the key markers of the spring and autumn equinoxes and, only slightly less significantly, the winter and summer solstices. Almost every agricultural society in the world holds celebrations at these four times of the year, and by Heian times these “nodal points” were firmly cemented in the practice of everyone from the peasant farmers and the rural aristocracy to the very centers of life in the capital. 

The “first planting” rituals were also a time of great entertainment. At its highest “performative” level, the emperor would ceremonially plant a row of rice seedlings, while the various court ministers would plant to his right and left. In the capital, days of celebration and amusements would follow. Among the rice fields of the provinces, such extended leisure was a practical impossibility, but the intensity of the celebrations was nonetheless anticipated throughout the year. Various poems and ritual texts from the Heian era speak to this excitement, and entertainment mingled with ritual seriousness in the Shinto ceremonies called “The Grain-Petitioning Festivities.” One must imagine the rest, which we can no longer “see” from a world separated from us by a thousand years. Throngs of celebrants followed the words below with daylong singing, dancing, clapping, and competitions. The immediacy of the language (dripping foam, soaring rice stalks, and plentiful wine) gives a hint of the sheer entertainment accompanying this most important period of the Japanese year. 

          This year, in the second month,
          Just as the grain cultivation is about to begin
          I present the noble offerings of the Sovereign Grandchild
          And, as the morning sun rises in effulgent glory
          Fulfill your praises. Thus I speak…
          …The latter grain to be harvested
          With foam dripping from the elbows,
          To be pulled hither
          With mud adhering to both thighs
          If this grain be vouchsafed by you
          In ears many hands long,
          In luxuriant ears;
          Then the first fruits will be presented
          In a thousand stalks, eight hundred stalks:
          Raising high the soaring necks
          Of the countless wine vessels, filled to the brim...[1]

Entertainment in Heian Kyō
The elites of Heian Japan channeled the vigorous energy of rural celebration into a number of elaborate practices that required experts, priests, and other skilled practitioners. They should be seen as extensions of the basic rhythms of entertainment that circled the calendar as surely as the solstices and equinoxes. Nonetheless, by Heian times aristocratic urban families had lost contact with the ways of life in the provinces, even though the income that supported them came from those areas. Bolstered by revenues from the manorial estates (shōen) in rural areas, it was a life of taste, festivals, and ritual. 
[c] Meandering RF
Among the most exciting entertainments in the capital were a series of fairs or market days that punctuated the ordinary flow of daily life. To this day, the Tōji Temple holds a fair on the twenty-first day of the month, while another venerable temple holds one on the twenty-fifth. Such temple fairs were a spectacle in Heian capital life that brought many levels of society into the same location, with open-air stalls selling food, drinks, and a variety of goods. Heian diarists wrote often of such entertainments as opportunities to observe nature and society while, at the very same time, being seen by others—a point that should never be underestimated. 
Everyday Entertainment 
Up to this point, we have examined large-scale entertainment that had important connections to the very rhythms of an agricultural society. Everyday entertainment could be found in many forms, as well. One is a variety of chess that likely was inspired by the many Japanese travelers to China in the sixth through eighth centuries. There, in the great Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, Chinese civilization mixed its wares with goods from the Silk Road, and the game that became known as Heian shogi was born. Although the rules remain obscure, it possessed a framework that will be familiar to chess players across the world. The goal is to capture or defeat the king of the opponent; it was played on an 8 x 8 (or possibly 9 x 8—the number is cosmologically significant) board, and had opposed black and white pieces. The game is a fine example of “borrowed culture” that took on distinctly Japanese dimensions in the Heian period. 

[d] Gaming RF
Finally, it should not be forgotten that one of the great entertainments in all of Heian life, at least for the aristocracy, was reading and writing. This went far beyond the requirements of the educational process, which required young men to memorize Chinese classics, and young women to learn the flowing, syllabic structures that could be used in what we today call “classical Japanese.”  Indeed, among the elite, diary writing might be as significant an entertainment as any.

Just one example is a description of daily life in the capital in the year 960—near the very midpoint of the Heian period. It gives a wonderful glimpse into the daily cycles of grooming, leisure, “work,” and entertainment for an educated and underemployed aristocracy. 
          When you arise in the morning chant seven times the name of the star for the 
          year. Next look at yourself in a mirror. Next consult the calendar to know the 
          fortune for the day. Next use your toothpick and face west to wash your hands. 
          Next chant the name of the Buddha. At the same time you may also chant the 
          names of those Shinto shrines to which you are affiliated. Next make your diary
          entry for yesterday. Next eat your rice-gruel [for breakfast]...[2] 

It could be set that writing one’s diary entry was as natural as rising and eating breakfast, and the power of diaries (writing and reading) as entertainment should not be underestimated among the Heian aristocracy. These diaries have, in turn, become some of the most valuable historical sources we have for the period, and genuine literary marvels in their own rights.
***  ***

Although it is more common to think of entertainment in forms that are familiar to modern life, it should not be forgotten that the rhythms of work and leisure in an agricultural society—and even for all the refinements of the great capital, it remained just that—guide the patters of entertainment. On the other hand, by Heian times Japan had developed many layers of social difference, and aristocratic life was filled with entertainments that vaulted beyond the preoccupations of a farming culture into fascinating areas of cultural borrowing (in the form of chess) and high-level literary practices such as diary keeping. It was all entertainment, as we say, in one of the world’s most fascinating eras. 

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] Heian Kitty RF
[1] David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 18-19. 
[2] Lu, 73-74.
Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

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