The fascination of the Heian Period (794-1185) lies in the fact that in all world history there is nothing quite like it. It would be hard to imagine a culture more exclusive, more fastidiously refined, more smugly incurious about the unknown, more unwarlike, more tearfully melancholic, more sensitive to beauty, more closed to the outside world, more morally ambiguous — the list of superlatives goes on and on. Perhaps none has ever existed, writes Michael Hoffman.

No one seems to know just why, in the year 784 under the Emperor Kammu, the decision was made to remove the capital from Nara, where it had been fixed since 710. One theory is that the leading Fujiwara family — de facto rulers despite their outward obeisance to the emperor — wanted to shake off the stifling influence of the Nara-based Buddhist clergy.

In any event, a new capital was built, at enormous expense (borne mainly by the peasants, mercilessly taxed in both crops and forced labor) in a place called Nagaoka, 50 km north of Nara.

Vengeful ghosts

We soon confront another mystery: Why, 10 years later, was Nagaoka abandoned and another new capital, in a little village 15 km further north, built almost from scratch? Explanations range from Fujiwara family feuds to the depredations of vengeful ghosts. Motivation in remote civilizations is never easy to pin down.

This second new capital, modeled on the Chinese capital of Chang’an, was called Heiankyo (the “City of Peace and Tranquility,” present-day Kyoto).

The Nara Period (710-784) saw Japan’s emergence from semi-barbarism into the full light of Chinese-style civilization. If any other style of civilization existed somewhere out there in the vast world, Japan neither knew of it nor, apparently, wanted to know. China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) was at its dazzling height. What other model did an infant civilization need?

Nara is characterized chiefly by the feverish importation — feverish because of a newly awakened sense of how terribly far Japan had to go — of Chinese books, Chinese religion, Chinese architecture, Chinese law, Chinese forms of government. Seeds of Confucianism and sinified Buddhism had penetrated Japan some two centuries earlier, along with Chinese writing; now they burgeoned.

Japanese priests and government officials crossed the ocean in rickety flat-bottomed boats; those who survived the crossing (roughly a third did not) spent years studying under Chinese masters, returning home at last to instruct their countrymen.

Then, abruptly, the lessons ceased. Tang China entered its decline, pirates infested the seas, and Japan withdrew to digest its massive cultural infusion. The last China-bound boat set out in 838; 500 years were to pass before official relations with the continent resumed.

Heian represents newly civilized Japan turning inward. Courtiers still wrote poems and official memoranda in Chinese (stilted and archaic Chinese, say the experts), and China remained the standard for what we today call the “higher” things in life — but it was a distant China, an imagined China, that people looked to, not the real thing — of which, as time passed, notions grew dimmer and dimmer.

It didn’t matter. The real cultural life of the society was being written in pure Japanese — overwhelmingly by women, whose subordinate place in society did not demand of them the literary use of a language they knew only at secondhand. That’s why women created most of the Heian literature we know of — they were writing in their own language; men were not. “The Tale of Genji” and “The Gossamer Years” are hiragana masterpieces.

A preliterate pre-civilization

Here’s another Heian superlative: Has any civilization in world history ever flowered so quickly?

One fact makes the point: In the year 400, Japan was a preliterate pre-civiliz- ation — Japanese writing did not exist. A mere six centuries later came “The Tale of Genji.” The span of that leap is an enduring marvel.

Flower it did — but subsequently it neither evolved nor progressed. In all its 400 years, Heian society essentially went nowhere, eventually dying of inertia.

An underlying message of “The Tale of Genji” is that there was nowhere for Heian to go; it was a rarefied pellet of (narrowly defined) perfection, with everything it needed except defenses against the imperfect world outside its tiny span. When that outside world imposed itself, in the form of restive military clans that had been gathering strength unnoticed for generations, the Heian world crumbled like a buried treasure abruptly exposed to air. That was in the late 12th century. No sooner dead, it became a remote curiosity, incomprehensible even to its immediate successors of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). All the more so, of course, to us.

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