National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Heian literature: Is all fair in love and no war?

by Michael Hoffman

How sordid the news is! How hot the summer! One yearns for escape. Is there an island remote enough?

Yes. A plane won’t take you there but a book will. “In spring, it is the dawn.” It’s one of the most famous opening sentences in Japanese literature.

There’s nothing quite like Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185). Four centuries of peace set it apart; set it outside history. We’re in another dimension. The governing class was an aristocracy of culture. Arms were foreign to them, courage an embarrassment, hatred unknown. Love, poetry, beauty — was there anything else in life? Nothing good.

Everyone was a lover, everyone a poet, musician, calligrapher. Deep sensitivity, expressed in poetry or music, revealed in a gesture or a flourish of the writing brush, excused the meanest vices. Insensitivity, betrayed by a gauche poem, a false note, clothing of clashing colors, tainted every virtue. An offense against the cult of beauty was not lightly forgiven. Admission to the circle of “good people” was accorded by birth, but respect within it had to be earned.

A tiny, exclusive circle it was. Japan’s population in the 10th century is estimated at 5 million; that of Heian-kyo, the capital (today’s Kyoto), at 100,000, of whom maybe 10,000 were sufficiently high-born to count as anything other than figures of derision or exploitation. If you were outside the circle, were you even fully human? We’ll return to that question presently.

Two works of literature tower over the era, and over subsequent ones. Both were written by women — court ladies in the service of empresses. One is “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1016); the other is “The Pillow Book” of Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1025). “Genji” is a novel — the world’s first by hundreds of years; the world’s best to this day, say more than a few critics.

The “Pillow Book” is something else altogether. The term that describes its style is zuihitsu — “follow-the-brush;” whatever comes to mind. Sei invented it, and has had many imitators down the ages. You just write as you feel, about anything you like, whatever moves you, however it moves you, up or down, to delight or disgust, the only requirement being that you write beautifully. Sei is said to have written very beautifully indeed. Something inevitably gets lost in translation. We must do the best we can.

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. In summer, the nights. In autumn, the evening. In winter, the early mornings. What else is on Sei’s mind?

This, for example: “A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks.”

Or this: “Oxen (carriages were drawn by oxen) should have very small foreheads, with white hair.”

Love, naturally: “A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: ‘Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.’ He gives a deep sigh … .”

The impression Sei gives is of a woman absolutely satisfied, with herself, and with her world — which, it never occurs to her to doubt, is the whole world: “When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands — women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe they are perfectly happy — I am filled with scorn. Often they are of good birth, yet have no opportunity to find out what the world is like.”

“The world” means the palace, where she serves Empress Sadako as lady-in-waiting. What was “the world” like? One of her favorite words is “medetashi” (“splendid”). So much strikes her as that: “Chinese brocade. A sword with a decorated scabbard. Long flowering branches of beautifully colored wisteria entwined about a pine tree.” “A Chamberlain of the Sixth Rank cuts a magnificent figure when he arrives with an Imperial mandate.” “The eldest son of our present Emperor is still a child, but how splendid he looks when he is in the arms of Their Excellencies, his handsome young uncles… .”

“Unsuitable things” make her shudder: “A woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.” “Ugly handwriting on red paper.” “A handsome man with an ugly wife.”

This is a world in which a cat “had been awarded the head-dress of nobility and was called Lady Myobu. She was a very pretty cat, and His Majesty saw to it that she was treated with the greatest care.”

The punishment meted out to Okinamaro, the palace dog who mistreated Lady Myobu, makes a curious and pathetic story: “His Majesty ordered that Okinamaro be chastised and banished to Dog Island. The attendants all started to chase the dog amid great confusion.” The dog — failing to understand what banishment meant, perhaps — came sauntering back. And here the tale takes an ugly turn. The beast is flogged almost to death. All’s well that ends well, however: “Before long Okinamaro was granted an Imperial pardon and returned to his former happy state.”

Ranking far, far below either of these noble critters is the human herd beyond the palace gates. Sei sees little of it, but workmen engaged in palace repair work one day gave her quite a jolt: “The way in which carpenters eat is really odd. The moment the food was brought, they fell on the soup bowls and gulped down the contents. Then they pushed the bowls aside and finished off the vegetables. … They all behaved in exactly the same way, so I suppose this must be the custom of carpenters. I should not call it a very charming one.”

Fortunately the carpenters soon leave, and “the world” quickly regains its accustomed texture: “I love to hear His Majesty playing the flute in the middle of the night.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”