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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

A good share of the Nara poetry is of feminine authorship


THE

CLASSICAL AGE OF LITERATURE

The Engi era and the intervals of three or four decades before and after it may be regarded as the classical age of literature in Japan. Prose composition of a certain class was wholly in Chinese. All works of a historical, scientific, legal, or theological nature were in that language, and it cannot be said that they reached a very high level. Yet their authors had much honour. During the reigns of Uda and Daigo (888-930), Sugawara Michizane, Miyoshi Kiyotsura, Ki no Haseo, and Koze no Fumio, formed a quartet of famous masters of Chinese literature. From one point of view, Michizane's overthrow by Fujiwara Tokihira may be regarded as a collision between the Confucian doctrines which informed the polity of the Daika epoch and the power of aristocratic heredity. Kibi no Makibi and Sugawara no Michizane were the only two Japanese subjects that attained to be ministers of State solely in recognition of their learning, but several litterateurs reached high office, as chief chamberlain, councillor of State, minister of Education, and so forth. Miyoshi Kiyotsura ranks next to Michizane among the scholars of that age. He was profoundly versed in jurisprudence, mathematics (such as they were at the time), the Chinese classics, and history. But whereas Michizane bequeathed to posterity ten volumes of poems and two hundred volumes of a valuable historical work, no production of Kiyotsura's pen has survived except his celebrated

memorial referred to above. He received the post of minister of the Household in 917 and died in the following year.

It must be understood that the work of these scholars appealed to only a very limited number of their countrymen. The ako incident (pp. 239-240) illustrates this; the rescript penned by Tachibana no Hiromi was not clearly comprehended outside a narrow circle of scholars. Official notices and enactments were intelligible by few men of the trading classes and by no women. But a different record is found in the realm of high literature. Here there is much wealth. The Nara epoch gave to Japan the famous Manyo-shu (Myriad Leaves), and the Engi era gave her the scarcely less celebrated Kokin-shu, an anthology of over eleven hundred poems, ancient and modern. As between the two books, the advantage is with the former, though not by any means in a marked degree, but in the abundance and excellence of its prose writings--pure Japanese writings apart from the Chinese works referred to above--"the Heian epoch leaves the Nara far behind. The language had now attained to its full development. With its rich system of terminations and particles it was a pliant instrument in the writer's hands, and the vocabulary was varied and copious to a degree which is astonishing when we remember that it was drawn almost exclusively from native sources. The few words of Chinese origin which it contains seem to have found their way in through the spoken language and are not taken straight from Chinese books, as at a later stage when Japanese authors loaded their periods with alien vocables."

This Heian literature "reflects the pleasure-loving and effeminate, but cultured and refined, character of the class of Japanese who produced it. It has no serious masculine qualities and may be described in one word as belles-lettres--poetry, fiction, diaries, and essays of a desultory kind. The lower classes of the people had no share in the literary activity of the time. Culture had not as yet penetrated beyond a very narrow circle. Both writers and readers belonged exclusively to the official caste. It is remarkable that a very large and important part of the best literature which Japan has produced was written by women. A good share of the Nara poetry is of feminine authorship, and, in the Heian period, women took a still more conspicuous part in maintaining the honour of the native literature. The two greatest works which have come down from Heian time are both by women.* This was no doubt partly due to the absorption of the masculine intellect in Chinese studies. But there was a still more effective cause. The position of women in ancient Japan was very different from what it afterwards became when Chinese ideals were in the ascendant. The Japanese of this early period did not share the feeling common to most Eastern countries that women should be kept in subjection and as far as possible in seclusion. Though the morality which the Heian literature reveals is anything but strait-laced, the language is uniformly refined and decent, in this respect resembling the best literature of China."**


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