Friday, January 02, 2009

Dwellers in the Clouds
The Court of Heian-Kyo

Detail of a twelfth Century Genji Scroll
A thousand years ago in Japan there flourished a rarefied and aesthetic Imperial court at the Imperial Capital of Heian-Kyo, (Meaning "city of Peace" modern day Kyoto.). members of this court called cultivated a very extreme aesthetic of taste. It was a hot house plant of extreme refinement. It was also a cultural golden age.

In court extreme refinement was cultivated to an extent that would make the court of Louis XIV at Versailles seem crude. It was a world in which the colour of your Kimonos and sleeves you had showing meant the loss or attainment of social standing. Where the colour of letters mattered as much as the super refined wit and sophistication of the letters. A world were you perfumed not just yourself but your letters, and the ability to drop an appropriate Haiku at moments notice meant so much. A world where aesthetic refinement meant the ability to write beautifully. Both men and women pampered themselves and their bodies outrageously. Where faces were powdered white and teeth blackened, because white teeth were considered far to garish.

I cannot stand a women who wears sleeves of unequal width. If she has several layers of robes, the added weight on one side makes her costume lop-sided and most inelegant; If she is dressed in thick wadded clothes, the uneven balance prevents them from closing properly in front, and this too is very un-sightly. When a women wears a robe of different width, all her robes must be cut in the same style.


The fashion of unequal sleeves is just as unattractive for men as for women, since it produces the same lopsided effect. Yet nowadays everyone seems to have his clothes cut like this, whether he is wearing a fine ceremonial robe or a light summer garment. Fashionable, good-looking people really dress in a most inconvenient way.1

So said the journal keeper Sei Shonagon in her extraordinary Pillow Book, a fascinating collection of thoughts, lists, musings, commentary. Sei Shonagon like so many of her colleagues at the court referred to themselves as "Cloud Dwellers", and indeed in the rarefied atmosphere of the court they were indeed a sort of "Dwellers in the Clouds".

Maps of Heian-Kyo and vicinity

The above series of maps are of the location of Heian-Kyo and maps of the city and the north east quarter.

Heian-Kyo was founded in 793 C.E. to serve has the Imperial capital of Japan and the seat of the Imperial dynasty. It was to serve has the seat for over 1000 years until 1867. During that time The Imperial family would be, most of the time, political ciphers but they would retain immense cultural and social significance to the Japanese. The Imperial court would remain a important cultural center.

Like the previous capitals, (Nara 710-784 C.E., Nagaoka 784-793 C.E.), the capital was designed has a copy of the Tang dynasty, (618-907 C.E.), capital of Chang-an. It was part and parcel of a wholesale borrowing of Chinese culture, philosophy, science, governmental arts etc. This included much Tang Dynasty Court costume and etiquette.

Although the Emperor was in a possession of unchallenged social prestige during this time period actual power was in the hands of the Fujiwara family. By astute intermarriage into the Imperial family, daughters were considered more important than boys, divide and rule tactics, ensuring that Emperors came to the throne young and abdicated young, the Fujiwara family through a series of regents assured themselves domination for centuries. The fact that they made no attempt to undermine the social position of the Imperial family helped, neither did they ever even think of replacing it.

Eventually in the 11th century Fujiwara power wained and in 1068 the Emperor Go-Sanjo acceded to the throne and decisively broke the weakening power of the Fujiwara family. The family managed however to remain a important one at court. It was under the rule of these Fujiwara regents that the Heian-kyo cultural flowering reached its height in the period 950-1050 C.E.
Women's Court Costume

The above is a illustration of a typical Women's court costume of the Heian court. The white make up and black teeth with very long hair, (ideally it trailed to the ground), and plucked eyebrows with black marks instead of brows, added to the look. women in the Heian court lived ideally lives of relative seclusion in their quarters seeing very few men, (in theory only husband and father and sons), and other men only when they were secure behind screens while talking with them. In actuality things were not quite so bad. Women especially women who had official positions, (i.e., Ladies in waiting at the Empresses court for example) had considerable freedom of movement and influence. And women could own, inherit and manage property on their own, even if married, giving them some sort of Independence. Although it does appear that court women could spend a inordinate amount of time being bored and staring into space.

There was, however, the pleasure of having visitors, conducting a love affair, which was a very refined art at court, and reading and writing. Those with the talent for literary pursuits could relieve the tedium with exquisite poetry or acute observation. In Heian times women where generally considered incapable of the higher literary pursuits which involved reading and writing in Chinese, which was considered a masculine activity. Women who had a interest in said activities were considered gauche and even worse lacking in proper taste and decorum. That didn't prevent some women from having a interest in such things. Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji,2 for example had a good knowledge of the Chinese classics.

Since writing "serious" stuff was considered the preserve of men writing in Chinese women with literary aspirations had to write in Japanese using the Japanese Kana syllabic system. The quite unintentional result of that was that the great majority of the great, even good, writers at the Heian court were women. The men also wrote a lot, but the less said about their literary effusions the better, most of which were mediocre to just plain awful.

Heian-Kyo Mansion

The above is a typical mansion of a court noble at Heian-Kyo. Built of wood and paper it was rather hard to keep warm in the winter. (It snowed in the winter at Heian-Kyo), but because it was built on piles in the summer, (which at Heian-Kyo could be very hot and humid), which allowed the wind to blow under the house, it could be rather cool and dry.

Japanese Print of Heian-Kyo Mansion

With its light airiness and gardens and ponds a Heian-Kyo Mansion could be very nice place to stay live except in the winter when one or more braziers were an absolute requirement to keep ones room at least tolerable.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu in her Diary writes concerning the Mansion she lives in:

As autumn advances, the Tshuchimikado mansion looks utterably beautiful. Every branch on every tree by the lake and each tuff of grass on the banks of the stream takes on its own particular colour, which is then intensified by the evening light. The voices in ceaseless recitation of sutras are all the more impressive as they continue throughout the night; in the slowly cooling breeze it is difficult to distinguish them from the endless murmur of the stream.3

Print from an edition of the Tale of Genji

The great masterpiece of Heian literature is considered to be Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji. It is the story of a Japanese prince named Genji who is the son of an Emperor through a concubine and his various love affairs and dealings with people in his life. It is a beautiful but melancholy look at his life. Genji dies about 2 / 3 rds of the way through the novel and the hero role is replaced by the adventures of his son Kaoru, (who is his son through Genji committing adultery with a friends wife), who can best be described has an anti-hero.

The book we have is very long. My translation is 1090 pages.4 Lady Murasaki Shikibu apparently started writing the book c. 1004 C.E., and continued writing it until she died. The novel appears to be incomplete although what we have seems only to be missing at most one or two chapters.

The novel is characterized by a great delicacy of style and an almost extraordinary depth of psychological insight. The characters are complex and the sheer number of characters and their complex connections to say nothing of the convoluted plot are amazing. How Lady Murasaki Shhikibu managed to keep all of this straight is remarkable. (there are virtually no such errors in the novel!!).

To quote:

He wrote (Genji) regularly to Akashi. The time had come, he said firmly, for the lady's removal to the city. She was painfully aware of her humble station however, and she had heard that he made even ladies of the highest rank more unhappy by his way of behaving coolly but correctly than id he had simply dismissed them. She feared that she could expect little attention from him. Her rank could not be hidden, of course, and her daughter would suffer for it. And how painful it it would be, and what an object of derision she herself would be, if she had to sit waiting for brief and stealthy visits. But there was the the other side of the matter: it would not do for her daughter to grow up in the remote countryside, a child of the shadows. So she could not tell Genji that he had behaved badly and be finished with him. Her parents understood, and could only add their worries to hers. The summons from their noble visitor only made them unhappier.5

A spirit of Buddhist resignation of the impermanence of things and the illusionary nature of worldly things permeates the novel. Genji for example becomes a Buddhist monk shortly before he dies along with many other characters who become also become Buddhist monks or nuns.

The New Year came, but spring seemed far away. The silence of the frozen waters seemed to speak with its own sad voice. Though she had turned away in disgust from the prince who found her so "daunting" she thought all the same of the days she had known him.6

Another print from an edition of the Tale of Genji

Even during Murasaki Shikibu's lifetime copies of chapters of her Tale of Genji circulated and generated much interest. To quote:

I was brought up in a distant province which lies farther than the farthest end of the Eastern Road. I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl.

Somehow I came to know that there are such things as romances in the world and wished to read them. When there was nothing to do by day or at night, one tale or another was told me by my elder sister or stepmother, and I heard several chapters about the shining Prince Genji. My longing for such stories increased, but how could they recite them all from memory? I became very restless and got an image of Yakushi Buddha made as large as myself. When I was alone I washed my hands and went secretly before the altar and prayed to him with all my life, bowing my head down to the floor. "Please let me go to the Royal City. There I can find many tales. Let me read all of them." 7

So speaks a young aristocratic women from the provinces about literary life at court.

Flute playing at Court

Music and musical taste were highly esteemed at the Heian court. Virtually ever cultivated man or women was expected to to play an instrument and have considerable knowledge of music, and of course being able to drop a line of appropriate verse at any time.

Then I heard a carriage with a runner before it stop near the house. The man in the carriage called out, "Ogi-no-ha! Ogi-no-ha!" [Reed-leaf, a woman's name or pet name] twice, but no woman made reply. The man cried in vain until he was tired of it, and played his flute [a reed-pipe] more and more searchingly in a very beautiful rippling melody, and [at last] drove away.

Flute music in the night,
"Autumn Wind" sighing,
Why does the reed-leaf make no reply?

Thus I challenged my sister, and she took it up:

Alas! light of heart
Who could so soon give over playing!
The wind did not wait
For the response of the reed-leaf.

We sat together looking up into the firmament, and went to bed after daybreak.8

So writes the author of the The Sarashina Diary. Quite different is Izumi Shikibu probably the greatest Japanese women poet and one of the very greatest of Japanese poets. She wrote seven volumes of poetry; her diary is her only surviving prose work.

An illustration from The Tale of Genji

Izumi Shikibu was born in 974 C.E. She was married in 995 C.E., and was divorced soon after. Her diary is the record of a love affair she had with a Prince Atsumichi. Izumi Shikibu begins the diary, (in 1002 C.E.), shortly after the affair stated. The diary ends in 1005 shortly after the affair ended.

The affair at the beginning had some exchanges of poetry as follows:

It was embarrassing to return an oral message through the page, and the Prince had not written; discontented, yet wishing to make some response, she wrote a poem and gave it to the page:

That scent, indeed, brings memories
But rather, to be
reminded of that other,
Would hear the cuckoo's voice.

The Prince was on the veranda of his palace, and as the page approached him with important face, he led him into an inner room saying, "What is it?" The page presented the poem.

The Prince read it and wrote this answer:

The cuckoo sings on the same branch
With voice unchanged,
That shall you know.

His Highness gave this to the page and walked away, saying, "Tell it to no one, I might be thought amorous." The page brought the poem to the lady. Lovely it was, but it seemed wiser not to write too often [so did not answer].9

Heian bed

After an apparently quite tempestuous affair, characterized by the consternation of court officials and the extreme disapproval of the Prince's wife the affair came to an end.
All hated the lady, (Izumi Shikibu) and he was sorry for her. His Highness suspected what his wife was going to do, and he found his conjecture realized when the sons of his brother-in-law came to fetch her. A lady-in-waiting said to the housekeeper: "The princess has taken important things with her; she is going away." The housekeeper was in great anxiety and said to the Prince: "The Princess is going away. What will the Crown Prince think of it! Go to comfort her."

It was painful to her [the lady] to see these things going on. She was very sorry and pained, yet, as it was an unfit time to say anything, she kept silence. She wanted to get away from this disagreeable place, but thought that also not good. She thought she could never get rid of her trouble if she stayed.10
Izumi Shikibu did not stay she left soon after and ended the affair. Subsequently in later years she returned to court were her poetry gave her high social standing.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu had this to say about Izumi Shikibu:
Now someone who really did carry on a fascinating correspondance was Izumi Shikibu. She does have a rather unsavoury side to her character but has a talent for tossing off letters with ease and seems to make the most banal statement sound special. Her poems are most interesting. although her knowlwdge of the canon and her judgement of other peoples poetry leaves something to be desired, she can produce poems at will and always manages to include some clever phrase that catches attention. Yet when it comes to crticizing or judging the work of others, well, she never really comes up to scratch - the sort of person who relies on a talent for extemporization, one feels. I cannot think of her as a poet of the highest rank.11

Boat Inspection Illustration of Edition of Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Diary

Life in court was livened up by court ceremonials, various yearly celebrations, visiting nearby Buddhist shrines and the whole cycle of Imperial activities.

The following are some more illustrations of life at court.

Ladies listening to a recitation.

Nobleman being seated in a coach

Lady recieves male visitor

Sei Shonagon had this to say concerning male visitors:

I cannot bear men to eat when they come to visit ladies-in-waiting in the Palace. I also object to women who offer food to their male guests. Sometimes these women become quite insistent and say they will do nothing until the man has eaten. In such cases he is bound to give in; after all, he cannot very well put his hand in front of his mouth or turn his head the other way with a look of disgust. For my part, even if a man arrived very late and very drunk. I should never offer him so much as a bowl of watered rice. If he thinks I am heartless and descides not to repeat his visit - well then, let him stay away!

Of course, if I am at home and one of the maids brings my visiter something from the kitchen, there is nothing I can do about it. Yet I find this just has disagreeable.12

Ladies listening in at Court

About Sei Shonagon Lady Murasaki Shikibu says:

Sei Shonagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people eho have become so precious that they go out of their way to try to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?13

Traditionally Sei Shonagon is suppposed to have died alone and in poverty. The fact is we don't know what happenned to her, just that she vanishes without a trace by c. 1030 C.E.

Has for Lady Murasaki Shikibu it is vitually certain that she had died by c. 1035 C.E. Where or how she died is not known. It is believed she worked on The Tale of Genji until she died. According to tradition, like so many of the characters of her novel, she became a Buddhist nun before she died.

By 1100 C.E., the golden Heian age was over and the age of Shoguns, Samurai, militarism and intercine violence was begining.

I'll quote Lady Murasaki Shikibu, one last time, who said this about herself:

Thus I do criticize others from various angles - but here is one who has survived this far without having achieved anything of note. I have nothing particular to look forward to in future that might afford me the slightest consolation, but I am not the kind of person to abandon herself completely to despair. And yet, by the same token, I cannot entirely rid myself of such feelings. On autumn evenings, which postively encourage nostalgia, when I go out to sit on the veranda and gaze, I seem to be always conjuring up visions of the past - 'and did they praise the beauty of yore?' Knowing full well that I am inviting the kind of misfortune one should avoid, I become uneasy and move inside a little, while still, of course, continuing to recall the past.14.

One thousand years later people in countries Lady Murasaki Shikibu never heard of, in languages she could not concieve, read her words and learn their melancholy wisdom. Among her countrymen her novel is considered their greatest work of literature. Despite her feelings of failure Lady Murasaki Shikibu is one of the greatest writers who ever lived and the age she lived in one of the great ages of Mankind.

Noblewomen in Court dress

Nobleman in Court dress for hunting

1. The Pillow book of Sei Shonagon, Sei Shonagon, Penguin Books, London, 1967, p. 252. For a list of on line excerpts see Here

2. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki, Shikibu, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1977. The other two translations into English are The Tale of Genji, Penguin Books, London, 2002, and The Tale of Genji, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1926-1933 (in 6 volumes).

3. The Diary of Lady Murasaki, Murasaki Shikibu, Penguin Books, London, 1996, p. 3. For a version on line see Here

4. See Footnote 2.

5.The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, p. 318.

6. Ibid. p. 1075.

7. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, The Sarashina Diary, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1920. pp. 3-4. Translated by Annie Shepley Omori & Kochi Doi. We know the author was a daughter of Fujiwara Takasué and was born in 1009 and that she started the diary in 1021. (Within the lifetime of Murasaki Shikibu) We don't know her name sadly. A copy can be found on the web at Here

8. Ibid. p. 25.

9. Ibid., The Diary of Izumi Shikibu, Izumi Shikibu, p. 150-151.

10. Ibid. pp. 195-196.

11. The Diary of Lady Murasaki, Murasaki Shikibu, pp. 53-54.

12. Sei Shonagon, p. 254.

13. The Diary of Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, p. 54.

14. The Diary of Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, p.p. 54-55.

Other Sources for this Essay

Morris, Ivan, The World of the Shining Prince, Penguin Books, London, 1979.

Sansom, George, A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1958.

Pierre Cloutier

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