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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Asian Miscellany (19)—Language and Literature in Heian Japan

[a] Towering 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
Language and Literature in Heian Japan
Few periods from literary history in any society (perhaps Victorian England and early Athens can be considered analogous) have as distinctive and as rich a literary legacy as that of Heian Japan. Not only was the world’s first great extended “fictional” narrative produced (The Tale of Genji), but a wide range of other literary works sprouted from the rich literary soil of this four-hundred year period (794-1185). 

But there is much more to this story.

Language and Change 
It is impossible to understand Heian literary life without studying the process of cultural borrowing from China during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Few civilizations in the history of the world have borrowed as eagerly and as self-consciously from other societies as the Japanese in the centuries before the Heian period. China was the source, as rich as Greece and Rome were for Westerners from far-flung areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia. A close analysis of Confucius’s Analects was as common for a Japanese reader in the eleventh century was a reading of Plato’s Republic during the Enlightenment. Westerners have seen Greece as a cultural repository (Western tradition), without interpreting as exclusively Greek, just as Japanese readers saw China as their wider “East Asian” heritage. 
[b] Interior worlds RF

The first embassies to China began in the late-sixth century, and appeared at the Sui court. Chinese officials were accustomed to visitors from afar, but it was only after the short-lived Sui (581-617) and the establishment of the Tang dynasty (618-906) that diplomatic relations between China and Japan began to flourish. Of course, the “flourishing” is only from the perspective of the Japanese court. China’s worldview was centered. From this perspective, the world came, bearing gifts, to China, and China bestowed its grandeur on the visitors.

In the ordinary telling, the Japanese borrowed everything. Even this overstatement is only slightly off base. The Japanese “borrowed” the entire Chinese writing system—a monumental perplexity of components that has taken 1500 years to sort out. For example, each Chinese character (there are tens of thousands) was given a “Chinese pronunciation” (or two) and several (often half a dozen) “Japanese pronunciations.” Today, Japanese dictionaries will show one or more pronunciations that still sound similar to many Chinese Mandarin ones (歲Chinese: sui; Japanese sei). The dictionaries will also show a handful (or more) “Japanese pronunciations,” that take the implications of the Chinese characters to entirely new levels.

Almost all of the significant changes and adaptations of the originally “wooden” Chinese characters to a nuanced language of life in Japan took place during the Heian period. The great literature of those four centuries shows in detail the way that these vast borrowing from China were digested in a time of cultural reflection. The embassies to China, and three centuries of enormous borrowing, gave way in the first century of the Heian period to many centuries of inward reflection, with very little travel abroad.
[c] Transformed RF

Literary Transitions 
One of the great mysteries of the Heian period is why (unlike almost any other society in history) we can name almost no male authors of works that we still read today. Even in Japanese literary history, one cannot find a period in which men wrote almost nothing that has been remembered. This is not a matter of George Sand, George Eliot, or Virginia Woolf writing exquisite pieces alongside a large number of male peers. With very few exceptions, all of the writers we read today from the Heian period were women. How is this possible? 

Whether or not men were talented, their energies were diverted to a peculiar kind of literary work that has not been looked upon kindly by later centuries. So obsessed were they by the power of the Chinese written language that the only “reward system” in their world grew out of writing for other male readers who wrote in Chinese. The “problem” (which we can only see in historical retrospect) is that few people could, or would, bother to read such dense writing. Much like modern academia, authors within the small circle of highly educated readers admired each other’s work. The rest of society was unimpressed.

Women provided the most important link. With the main avenues to literary status closed to all but a small number of aristocratic men, women began to write in a lively language of “Japanese pronunciations.” They wrote in ways that evoked the spoken language and cultural nuances of life in Japan that the “copied” language of the men could never approach, no matter how learned it might seem. The men gained short-term scholarly style points while we still read the women today.
[d] Genders, gentries RF

Among the few exceptions is a very successful male writer still anthologized today. Unlike our aforementioned George Sand and George Eliot, he pretended to write a travelogue of a journey on choppy seas that arrived in several disparate port towns…in the voice of a woman. Japanese literary history is, indeed, distinctive. Few other civilizations have examples of men writing in the borrowed voice of women in order to gain prestige.

Murasaki Shikubu’s Tale of Genji is the most significant work to emerge from the Heian period. No other narrative can approach it for its subtle, yet comprehensive, treatment of life at court. It is sometimes called the world’s first novel, but that leads to quibbling about definitions (“first,” “novel”). It is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest sustained narratives, and stands with everything from Herodotus’s Histories and Plato’s Republic to much later works all over the world, including Chinese narratives such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West, as well as Western works such as Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Persian Letters. It was written in the tenth century, and that alone puts it in a class with all but a handful of narratives from Homer and Zhuangzi onward. 

The Tale of Genji centers on court life, as well as the social-psychological journey of its protagonist, Prince Genji. Early on, he takes on a protégée (young Murasaki) of a kind that today’s readers will find vaguely—or much more so—unsettling. Throughout the thousand pages of the three major English translations, the court life of Heian Japan can be seen. This is equally true, but in a rather distinctive fashion, in another great Heian work, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan. Written, as the title suggests, as a series of journal entries written before bed, Sei Shonagan’s entries range from reportage to highly interpretive and judgmental essays and lists.
***  ***

Throughout these narratives, there is an ongoing tension between male and female, urban and rural. It is as though a changing future that is startlingly clear today was utterly incomprehensible to those in the Heian period. Men, tied to a literary past from another country, would write unreadable prose. Women would be admired as authors of sensitivity and judgment. Yet even they would not sense the growing power of the provinces, which would transform every aspect of literature and politics after the Heian 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
[e] Changing RF

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