Tag Archives: Heian Japan

A shy Heian woman’s memoir

Although I was dismayed by rereading The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, that did not kill of my interest in Heian Japan. I remain fascinated by the artificial, hyper-aesthetic elite culture/society of which Sei was a passionate devotee.

I went on to read what Ivan Morris translated as As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan. The author’s name did not come down with the manuscript of her dream-filled memoir. She is generally referred to as Lady Sarashina. She was the daughter of a provincial governor of the Fifth Rank (the lowest of the top ranks), Takasue. Her husband (when she married at the old age of 36) and son (Michitsuna) were also officials of the Fifth Rank.

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She was born in 1008, when Lady Murasaki was still working on The Tale of Genji, which the young Sarashina eagerly consumed when she could get access to any of its 51 books. She was born and lived in the capital (Kyô, modern Kytôto) until the age of nine. She then went with her father to “the eastern wilds,” where her father was an Assistant Governor. She returned to the capital at the age of twelve. Her memoir begins with the three-month westward journey back to the center of Heian civilization.

Indeed, the book is something of a travelogue, with terse accounts of many pilgrimages she took. Her elder sister died (in childbirth) in 1023, a great shock to Sarashina, even though her nurse had died two years earlier. She wrote that death, even being told about the death of strangers disturbed her greatly and for long times.

I like Morris’s characterization of her father as “a querulous, self-centered old whiner.” Takasue wanted to keep her home (she was raising her dead sister’s two children as well as pampering him).

She did not go to court, as a lady-in-waiting, like Sei Shônagon and Murasaki, but to a princess rather than an empress, returning home often (it seems that Sei did, too, but her identity was entirely tied to the court and the empress she flattered in person and in her jottings). Sarashina enjoyed the travel to temples much more than Sei says she did. Sarashina’s memoir founded the Japanese genre of travel writing, though her ignorance of Japanese geography was typical of Kyô residents. Sarashina cautioned that “anyone reading the account of visits to one temple after another might well imagine that I was forever going on pilgrimages. In fact, there were log intervals, often several years between my retreats” (at least until her husband died, when they seem to have become more frequent).

There is hardly any mention of her three children or their father, who died when Sarashina was 49. Death again devastated her and her devotion to him after his death seems much greater than any during his lifetime. She almost certainly wrote her memoir after his death. In contrast to the randomness of The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, it proceeds in chronological order, though scanting details. There is more about moonlight than about her marital life. And she wrote about a number of dreams, prefiguring a major obsession of later Japanese writers (e.g., Soseki Natsume).

She exhibited compassion for the lower orders in marked contrast to Sei’s horror at their very existence, and she knew about how rice was grown (which I am not sure Murasaki knew, and was certainly of no interest to Sei). Sashira was as timid as Sei was bold. Sashira’s other regarded her as “unfit for normal society,” let alone the hypercritical world of the imperial court.

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The most self-analytic passage (#11) relates “I lived forever in a dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want…. The height of my aspiration was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like the Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in a mountain village where he would have hidden me, like Lady Ukifune [in The Tale of Genj… waiting for an occasional splendid letter.” Even this modest aspiration was delusional, however, for someone as timid as she was (literally hiding behind others when at court).

A particular interest of the book for me is that after she had read The Tale of Genji and other tales which she eagerly sought out was a girl, she came to feel that she had been too enamored of romantic fiction (in some ways prefiguring Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, though far more aware of how she had been harmed by her overeager consumption of romantic fiction). Her yearnings turned, in widowhood, to (Buddhist) merit she could have been making instead. (“If only I had not given myself over to tales and poems since my young days but had spent my time in religious devotion,” the old Sashira came to believe.)

Writing poems to answer others’ poems and appreciation of the aptness of references in the poem was central to Heian court life, as one could not miss in either The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon or The Tale of Genji. There are many poems in all three books, though the translators say much of the beauty of Heian poems cannot be translated into English.

Morris supplied a 27-page introduction and 32 pages of endnotes. There are also 3 maps, 17 woodblocks from a 1704 printing and seven pages of 20th-century photos of places Sarashina mentioned visiting (these are quite clear in the original Oford University Press edition, not so good in the smaller Penguin one). The actual text takes up only 98 pages.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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More revolted by than admiring of Sei Shônagon’s miscellaney

I have been on a Heian Japan tear, greatly admiring American anthropologist Lisa Dalby’s novel about the author of The Tale of Genji in The Tale of Murasaki and Columbia Japanologist Ivan Morris’s comprehensive analysis of Heian court culture and society in 1964 The World of the Shining Prince.

Morris drew on material from various extant Heian writings in addition to Genji, particularly The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, which he would translate a few years later (1967). I know that I read it long ago, probably in small chunks. There are 185 of these entires, covering 243 pages in Morris’s Penguin edition. He also produced 584 notes that take 110 pages, a ten-page introduction, 33 pages of appendices and a one page list of “further reading.”

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Considering the high regard I have for Morris’s explication of Heian culture, the high proportion of the book that is explication rather than translation if not a problem for me. The problem is the Heian author. I cannot think of a more snobbish writer in the whole of my experience of world literature than Sei Shônagon. She does not consider just servants and peasants as subhuman, but also members of the elite who are not as refined or as knowledgeable of classic Chinese poetry as she is or who commit what she considers some fault of couture.

Juxtaposed to her dismissing of most people, including most other members of the imperial court, there is also a sycophancy that seems pathological to me. I realize that flattering is what courtiers do to rulers, but the paeans to the empress Teishi’s beauty, poise, and poetic choices is so excessive as to turn my stomach. All the more so, since the book was mostly written secretly without expectation of being read by the empress and emperor. Rather than currying favor through flattery, Sei seems to have been so dazzled by rank as to be turned into a fool, however sharp-tongued she was about those of rank equal to or less than her own.

Plus I have vastly less interest in the robes and underrobes worn by the empress, empress, chamberlain, and officials (considering ladies in waiting as official) than Sei did, find the lack of development even in the fairly extended narratives included in the book disappointing. The lack of organization, within entries as well as in the total collection of judgments and observations, particularly in the many, many lists further alienates me. I do not agree with Morris that part of the book’s “charm lies precisely in its bizarre, haphazard arrangement in which a list of ‘awkward things,’ for example is followed by an account of the Emperor’s return form a shrine, after which a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning.” I am not charmed. I might appreciate the occasional lyricism if it was not cheek-to-jowl with the putdowns of the many and the sychophantic praise of Sei’s social superiors.

What puzzles me is that I don’t have negative memories from when I first read the Pillow Book long ago. In contrast, my admiration for the structure (at the level of episodes as well as that of the whole huge book) for The Tale of Genji has grown, as I have read three translations of it. In her diary, Lady Murasaki herself castigated Sei Shônagon(‘s jottings and character) “frivolous,” an adjective that I think might be applied to the aesthetes of the court in the times of both writers. Though acknowledging that Sei Shônagon was a “gifted woman,” Muraskai was also put off by “the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction” in Sei’s writing.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Ivan Morris’s engaging and comprehensive analaysis of Heian culture/society

 

I first acquired and read Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (first published in 1964) after reading the Edward Seidensticker (1976) translation of The Tale of Genji (Morris deems this the first “psychological novel” rather than the first novel). In 1990 I thought Morris’s book a model of a holistic ethnography of a long-gone culture. I reread it after reading Lisa Dalby’s (2000) The Tale of Murasaki. I still think that Morris’s book readably analyzes what can be known about Heian society/culture. It certainly explicates the place of elite Japanese women of the time. All the Heian literature that has survived was written by women. Morris himself translated The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogon and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Moreover, there was a preference for daughters (rather than sons) among the elite, so that they could be married to members of the imperial family. (This is not to say that there was no male privilege, not least in lack of constraints on mobility and ready acceptance of males having multiple wives and concubines.)

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(Murasaki imagined writing The Tale of Genji)

Women could inherit and hold property in Heian times, though it was difficult for them to go out and supervise their holdings. Indeed, a reluctance to leave the capital (now Kyoto) also hamstrung males of the court. Eventually, regional landowners toppled the aesthetes of the Heian.

Morris says that women lived in semi-darkness, isolated by screens from male interlocutors. While their male contemporaries were writing in Chinese, some women created Japanese literature (still enamored of Chinese models) in cursive (“grass script”).

Morris’s separation of Heian beliefs into “religions” and “superstitions” feels old-fashioned, but he made a clear rationale for distinguishing what Robert Redfield called “the great [written] traditions” and “small [unwritten] traditions.”

Not much is recorded about the lives of the masses. Morris relates what can be known, while recurrently emphasizing that the culture/society that is knowable from the literature of elite Heian women had little to do with the lifeways of Heian peasants. Even provincial governors, appointed by the Emperor, were looked down upon for being away from court. And warriors had no prestige in Heian Japan (samurais were far in the future!).

“Artistic sensibility was more highly valued than ethical goodness. Despite the influence of Buddhism Heian society was on the whole governed by style rather than any moral principles and good looks tended to take the place of virtue. The word yoki (‘good’) referred primarily to birth, but it also applied to a person’s beauty or his aesthetic sensibility’ the one implication it lacked was that of moral rectitude” (207).

“As in almost any polygamous society, the possession of numerous attractive concubines and mistresses, in addition to a well-born principal wife, far from labeling the man a lecher, was an enviable status symbol—an indication of his wealth, skill, charm, and health” (248)

The evanescence of beauty was already keenly noted even back then (the sadness of mono no aware).

Morris concludes with an appreciation of The Tale of Genji as literature (not only as a source of information about the Heian court society and culture) and of the woman who became known as Murasaki, a character in it, as the author.

For anyone interested in Heian Japan and/or those wanting to understand the sociocultural context of Genji and other Heian literature, Morris’s book cannot be recommended too highly. Morris produced other interesting work (The Nobility of Failure, Nationalism and the Right Wing in Japan), outstanding translation of Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Shôhei Ôoka’s Fires on the Plain. Alas, he died in 1976 at the age of 50, and the 1962 collection Modern Japanese Stories.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray