Japan Literature – The Era of Heian Part I

The first 4 centuries following the transfer of the capital to Kyōto, called Heian-kyō (City of Peace) mark the true golden period of letters. Poetry, on the whole, is qualitatively inferior to that of the Nara era, but prose, by copy and excellence, is far above; for the first time, indeed, it reaches true expression and form of art. In correspondence with the spiritual evolution of the nation, there is a progressive development of the national language, which is considerably enriched in the vocabulary and, thanks to the introduction of the syllabaries which miraculously solved the difficulties of adapting a script made for a monosyllabic language to a language by bending, it becomes, in the hands of skilled writers, a folding tool capable of expressing the most delicate nuances of thought.

Scholarly literature, including historical, theological, scientific, legal works, etc., continues to be written in Chinese, the study of which completely absorbs the activity of men. This explains the fact, moreover surprising and without parallel, of the importance that women have in the production of this era, the two major masterpieces of which (the Genji Monogatari and the Makura – no – S ō shi) are the work of two ladies of the court. It should not be forgotten, however, that the position of exceptional independence that the civilization of the time conferred on it also contributed powerfully, an independence which, later, with the prevalence of Buddhist and Confucianist ideas, will turn into awe. The importance that the woman has in the literature of the Heian period also explains the delicate and polite character of this; because, if it is true that from the sentimental descriptions and courtly loves, of which it abounds, the immorality of customs jumps evident, it is no less true that this immorality is always cleverly hidden and compensated by the irreproachable decency of language.

In its essential features, the literature of the Heian era has the whole physiognomy of class production, since it comes, for the most part, from the court environment. “The imperial court of this era, says Revon (Anthologie de la littérature japonaise, p. 11), is a place of delight, where customs are rather free, but where luxury inspires the arts and a sweet indolence allows light dreams of poetry. All courtiers and ladies of honor are aesthetes and writers who, when not engaged in the ordinary intrigues of a court, spend their time admiring flowers, visiting painting exhibitions, exchanging spiritual verses or competing for the prize. of some poetic contest (uta – awase) “. The people are out of the literary arena and do not participate in the spiritual evolution of the nation because the culture does not reach them. Only later, under the Tokugawa, as a consequence of the spread of education in the lower classes, the main merit of the bonzes, it will take an active part in the literary life, and then, by way of revenge, it will do what the nobles had done for their class: it will create a literature for itself, adapted to its tastes and tendencies, which will develop in parallel to the higher production of the upper classes.

According to BEAUTYPICALLY.COM, the first hundred years of this era are characterized by a complete dedication to Chinese studies to the detriment of national production, but in the meantime the culture is organized and spread. Numerous private schools are created for common use or for the education of young people belonging to the same lineage. Many of them are sent to China for study purposes (a phenomenon that will be repeated with Europe and America after the country’s opening in 1868) and through them Japan keeps in constant contact with its spiritual nurse. Some of them, returning to their homeland, made reforms or otherwise contributed to the social and spiritual progress of their country. One of these is Kūkai, to whom tradition attributes the invention of the hiragana syllabary,katakana, in which traditions, however, as Lange acutely observes (Einführung in die japanische Schrift, p. 3), it is necessary to see the tendency, so frequent in the history of language and writing, to attribute results of a long natural evolution.

At the end of the century IX, the anarchy and moral disorder that prelude the end of the T’ang in China, so impressed the minister Sugawara Michizane, sent there in 895, that he, on his return, supported the cessation of sending compatriots to that empire. It is that the national consciousness was beginning to awaken, giving the first signs of a reaction that must have had far-reaching in literature, starting the decline of Chinese letters in Japan. The first consequence was the rebirth of indigenous poetry, hitherto neglected for Chinese verses. In 925, in analogy with what had been done for these since the emperor Saga (810-823), it was thought to collect the flower of the national poetic production, and the emperor Daigo (898-930) gave the assignment to Ki-no-Tsurayuki (884-946) and others. The result was the Kokin – waka – sh ū or Kokin – sh ū (Collection of ancient and modern Japanese poems), completed in 922, the first of 21 official poetic anthologies, that is, ordered by the sovereign, which have come down to us. It contains 1100 poems, almost all tanka, of a less spontaneous and genuine inspiration than those of Many ō sh. The subjects are varied: nature and Buddhist ideas enter into it to a large extent, but worldly feelings prevail, especially love; characteristic is the frequent use of personification, so foreign to Far Eastern thought. The form reveals more study and the art is more refined, but overall the Kokin- sh ū far exceeds the other later collections, of which the following 6 belong to this same period: Gosen – sh ū (Collection chosen later; in 951; 1426 poems), Sh ū i – sh ū (Anthology of collected remains ; around 995; 1351 poems), Go – Sh ū i – sh ū (Later anthology of collected remains; in 1086; 1220 poems), Kin – y ō – sh ū (Anthologies of autumn maple leaves; in 1127; 716 poems), Shikwa -sh ū (Anthology of word leaves; c. 1151, 411 poems), Senzai – sh ū (1000-year anthology; 1187; 1285 poems). These, with the Shin – Kokin – sh ū (The New Kokin – sh ū, completed in 1205) and the aforementioned Kokin – sh ū, constitute a whole called Hachidai – sh ū (Collection of the eight kingdoms).

Of the life of Ki-no-Tsurayuki, one of the most eminent figures of the time, we have only a few and unsafe news. His fame as well as the compilation, in part, of the Kokin – sh ū and its poems contained therein, is linked to the famous preface he wrote there and to his Tosa Nikki (Tosa’s Diary). The first is a kind of critical monograph on indigenous poetry, written in a pure and elegant language, which had many imitators; the diary, written in 935, tells us, in a simple and polite style, the author’s journey to the capital, where he returned after having been prefect of the province of Tosa for five years; it is the progenitor of the very copious literature of diarî, of which there are, at all times, representatives of various value.

Japan Literature - The Era of Heian 1