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Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court , by Robert Borgen

Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court - Robert Borgen

The Yushima Tenjin shrine in Tokyo



I expect that most of us would admit to a certain amount of idolatry in our relations to our favorite authors, but the Japanese deified Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), not merely because he was a highly regarded poet in both Chinese and Japanese, professor of literature at the Imperial university for decades, and extremely high-ranking Imperial official - no, they deified him as the god Tenman-Tenjin because his ghost was haunting the court! His shrines all over Japan are still sites of frenetic activity during important examination periods as desperate students implore the god of learning to improve their scores.


But first things first...




Tenjin Crossing to China, Sesshin (late 15th century)


Michizane was born into a family of scholars that was rapidly rising at the Heian court due to the Japanese emulation of the early T'ang dynasty's tentative attempts to open up the recruitment of qualified men for its Imperial bureaucracy to a wider class of persons with its universities and examination system.(*) Exposed to Chinese culture a few centuries before Michizane's birth through Korean intermediaries, the Japanese soon went directly to the source and set up their court, bureaucracy, even their capitals in the image of those of the Chinese. Though there were some differences (explained along with much of what I am writing here in Robert Borgen's excellent Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court, which first appeared in 1986), large sections of the code of the Japanese government were lifted word for word from the corresponding sections of the T'ang governmental codices. 


And I mean literally word for word, because the primary language of the Japanese court, government and literature was Chinese. The first imperial collections of poetry written in Japan were of poems written in Chinese. The first collection of Japanese-language Japanese poetry, the impressive Man'yōshū, was compiled circa 759, and for nearly a century thereafter only compilations of Chinese-language poetry were commissioned by the emperors.


Michizane wrote both kanshi, poetry in Chinese, and waka, poetry in Japanese, though it would appear that now his kanshi is more highly regarded.(**) Many of his poems have survived, and their subjects run through all of the standard themes of Chinese and Japanese poetry. But he also wrote poems complaining about his students (in that regard, some things never change) or relating political/bureaucratic problems and duties he had to deal with. Precisely because he wrote so much about his own life, one can get a surprisingly detailed glimpse of the man. So Borgen translates many of Michizane's poems, both kanshi and waka, largely leaving aside the many poems he was obliged to write for the sake of duty, which necessitated learned allusions and obscure vocabulary.(***)


To provide a taste of the poems he wrote for himself, here is


                             Moon Over the Sea    (kanshi)


This autumn night, an ocean breeze lodges amidst reed flowers.

How can I be melancholy before this vista?

Words and laughter issue from my heart and mingle with the sounding waves.

I recite poems and use my finger to write them in the sand.

I slowly stroll; the low grasses are covered in the rising tide.

I sit a while; into the night sky the moon's rays sink.

If I were free to wander and could select my favorite spot,

The province of Echizen would acquire a solitary Confucian scholar.


Next is the beginning of a lengthy poem Michizane wrote after his eldest son died at the age of six:


                               Dreaming of Amaro  (kanshi)


Since Amaro died I cannot sleep at night;

if I do, I meet him in dreams and tears come coursing down.

Last summer he was over three feet tall;

this year he would have been seven years old.

He was diligent and wanted to know how to be a good son,

read his books, and recited by heart the "Poems on the Capital."

Medicine stayed the bitter pain, but only for ten days;

then the wind took his wandering soul off to the Nine Springs.

Since then, I hate the gods and buddhas;

better if they had never made heaven and earth!

I stare at my knees, often laugh in bitterness,

grieve for your little brother too, buried in an infant's grave.


But one is afforded insight not only into Michizane's life. By using the surviving court and government records, the diaries often kept by Heian period aristocrats and Michizane's writings, Borgen provides a close look at the cultural, social and political state of the center of power in 9th century Japan.


Through the patronage of Emperor Uda, Michizane rose to become the most powerful figure in the court, but when Uda abdicated in favor of his son in 897 Michizane's position became increasingly shaky.


The Fujiwara family had increased its power slowly and carefully from the beginnings of the Heian era through a policy of marrying their daughters to the royal family and would eventually completely control the emperors at the end of the era as regents. Michizane had crossed the Fujiwara's with his rapid rise and had stepped on the fingers of too many other officials. Within four years of Uda's retirement, Michizane's opponents had maneuvered the ex-emperor into impotence and slandered Michizane into an exile on Kyushu in which he was slowly starved to death.


A series of calamities occurred soon after Michizane's death - a number of emperors and crown princes died suddenly; lightning struck the palace and killed four courtiers, including the man who reported Michizane's (nonexistent) "confession" of crimes to the court. Through a complex series of events that Borgen tries to reconstruct (the legends which have arisen around Michizane's figure in the popular culture are dismantled in this book), Michizane was identified by miracles and oracles occurring between 941 and 947 as the new deity Temman Tenjin with the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of shrines at Kitano. Borgen also outlines the subsequent evolution of the Tenjin cult from the initial Thunder and Lightning Tenjin to the current god of learning Tenjin.


So, a fascinating story and a close look at a period of Japanese history that is not well known - the famous texts of Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon were written a century after Michizane's death.  In view of his extensive bibliography of nearly exclusively Japanese and Chinese sources, Borgen has rendered a great service with this well written and richly detailed book.


(*) This system reached its full flower in China centuries later during the Sung (Song) dynasty. In fact, the ups and downs of the examination systems in China and Japan reveal much about the power struggles in the courts and the relative weights of various factions in their culture wars. 


(**) Whether his kanshi or his waka are most highly regarded has changed back and forth through time.


(***) He held many positions over his lifetime. For some of them he had to write kanshi for ritual/formal purposes of the imperial court. He also had to deal with emissaries from a Manchurian court on at least three different occasions, which entailed an extended exchange of poems written in Chinese, as an important component of foreign relations in those days was demonstrations that one was highly cultured.