Reading 5

The following passage is adapted from a book titled A History of Japan by J.C. Caiger and R.H.P. Mason (© 1997 by J.C. Caiger and R.H.P. Mason).

  1. Literature was taken very seriously
  2. by the Heian Court. In those early
  3. days, anyone interested in fine
  4. writing needed a knowledge of
  5. Chinese and – to a lesser extent –
  6. Buddhism, as Japanese culture was
  7. still very much subject to direct
  8. influences from the mainland.
  9. Therefore, there was a close
  10. association between literature
  11. and learning.
  12. This association led, in turn, to
  13. literature being closely connected
  14. with public administration on the
  15. one hand and private conduct on
  16. the other. The Confucian and
  17. Buddhist texts were the courtier’s
  18. manuals for good government,
  19. and knowledge of them opened
  20. the way to official advancement.
  21. At the same time, these books
  22. gave their readers guidance on
  23. matters of general behavior. They
  24. were the basis of personal and
  25. family, as well as political morality.
  26. Thus scholarship, public
  27. promotion and private ethics were
  28. all involved in literary studies,
  29. and it is not surprising that
  30. literature should have been
  31. so highly regarded.
  32. As in the Nara period, writing was
  33. overwhelmingly upper-class and
  34. aristocratic and metropolitan in
  35. tone, because only aristocrats and
  36. priests were literate, and for a time
  37. it remained largely Chinese in
  38. language as well as inspiration,
  39. owing to the continuing difficulty of
  40. writing Japanese when using only
  41. Chinese characters. This situation
  42. altered radically about the year 900
  43. with the development of a phonetic
  44. system which made it possible to
  45. write readily intelligible Japanese.
  46. The invention of phonetic letters
  47. allowed the composition of
  48. enduring Japanese language prose
  49. works from the tenth century.
  50. Nevertheless, Chinese continued
  51. for some time as the main
  52. language for business and official
  53. documents, philosophical treatises,
  54. partly because of tradition but also
  55. because it had a fuller and more
  56. precise vocabulary suited to
  57. such purposes.
  58. Heian literature therefore has two
  59. very different streams. One
  60. consists of writings in the Chinese
  61. language and ideographic script,
  62. and is associated with men. The
  63. other is made up of works written
  64. in Japanese with considerable
  65. recourse to the native phonetic
  66. script, and is associated with
  67. women. The latter is more
  68. important in terms of literary
  69. merit, although it should be noted
  70. in passing that the Heian-period
  71. Chinese writings are a rich and
  72. largely unexplored source of
  73. historical information and do
  74. indeed have some artistic worth.
  75. Why did men tend to use Chinese
  76. and women Japanese? And how did
  77. Japanese women come to write
  78. so superbly?
  79. It is often argued that men
  80. considered it beneath them to
  81. write in Japanese. Questions of
  82. dignity and education may have had
  83. some significance, but this
  84. explanation is not satisfactory since
  85. some men did write Japanese,
  86. especially some verse, and some
  87. women studied Chinese. The
  88. divergence can perhaps best be
  89. explained by differences in the
  90. occupations of men and women and
  91. by the suitability of the two
  92. languages for different purposes.
  93. Men, accustomed to coping with the
  94. everyday affairs of government,
  95. their estates, and their households
  96. in comparatively concise and
  97. concrete Chinese, doubtless found
  98. it easier to compose memoirs,
  99. family testaments, and private
  100. records of public events in that
  101. tongue. By contrast, the life of
  102. introspection and sociable leisure
  103. led by women at court and at home
  104. encouraged them to write and
  105. circulate among themselves
  106. compositions in Japanese.
  107. Japanese, after all, was their mother
  108. tongue, and its tenth-century form,
  109. however vague and limited it might
  110. have been in some respects, had
  111. a marvelous potential for
  112. communicating subtle emotions.
  113. This potential the court ladies
  114. taught themselves to exploit.
  115. Last, but not least, the splendid
  116. flowering of feminine literary
  117. talent in the Heian period was
  118. made possible by a degree of social
  119. and intellectual freedom enjoyed
  120. by women of the upper class.