In her own words, an introvert and largely misunderstood, Murasaki Shikibu, a fine woman, termed as one of Japan’s finest literary minds was born during the Heian period into a minor Fujiwara family. She outlived the confined and rigid life of most east Asian aristocratic women through the power of her fine literary works ,which use psychological detail and imagery like what we see in The Tale of Genji.
The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris deals with the lives and times that mattered to people like Murasaki’s protagonist Prince Genji and the aristocratic nobility of her time. Throughout the book, the author uses evidence from Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book by her contemporary, Sei Shonagon, to support his arguments and opinions.
The book deals with the aristocratic life of Heian Japan which constitutes only a small percentage of the Japanese population of the time.
The Heian period starting from the middle of the tenth century to the middle of the eleventh century (A.D) was an exciting time in Japanese history when people were enjoying political stability, magnificent growth and development of their culture. This period, many have borrowed many aspects from the Chinese, but still remained truly and uniquely Japanese in many ways.
The Heian Japan was a very important phase in Japanese civilization because of a range of reasons. This period sowed the seed of the coming of the military culture or what is popularly known as the samurai culture. This was also the time of great cultural borrowing from China by sending envoys to the Tang and Sung courts. It also saw the rise of the remote city of Kyoto into a flourishing cultural centre.
Superstition was an important aspect of the Heian life. In fact, in the Ministry of Central Affairs, they had a Bureau of Divination (borrowed from the Chinese Yin and Yang dualism) that controlled human affairs. The concept of yin and yang, the direction of the North East being universally unlucky, and the permanently unlucky periods in one’s life. In the book, an example has been given from Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji when Prince Genji could not return to his home after visiting Utsusemi, a young married woman, because his house was situated in an ‘unlucky’ direction and had to stay back at the woman’s house. The author sarcastically remarked that Prince Genji had been caught in a thick November fog. Another important characteristic of the Bureau of Divination is the usage of sexagenary cycle. Even the most trivial issues like when to take bath and when to cut one’s hair were carried out in accordance to the principle of the sexagenary cycle. Also, during Heian Japan, spinsters and virgins were unusual because it was widely believed that a girl who remains a virgin for long had been possessed by the evil spirit.
The definition of beauty was very different. The naked body of women was considered unforgettably horrible and in Murasaki’s words did not possess even the slightest charm. Beauty was measured on the scale of a women’s poetic style or her way of folding a letter. It is an interesting fact that nowhere in the literary works of the Heian Japan; a woman’s body has been described with the exception of their hair. Blackened teeth which gleam horribly was considered beautiful. The Heian gentlemen powdered their faces and used a generous amount of scent on their hair and clothes. And tears, far from being a sign of weakness, showed that a man was sensitive to the beauty and pathos of life.
The rise of the Fujiwaras to supreme power is a very important feature of Heian Japan. It is interesting that the Fujiwara family managed to acquire supreme power in the Heian period not through military strength or physical force but through a very popular political method called ‘marriage politics’. This was a system whereby the fujiwara leaders made sure that imperial consorts were chosen exclusively from among the Fujiwara girls.
The status of women in Heian Japan was equally intriguing and sad. The birth of a girl child was considered a boon because of marriage politics in Heian Japan. Actually for the first time, girls were preferred to boys in almost all Fujiwara households. Women were also given a share in the family properties which did create a sense of economic independence. But this did not help in empowering or uplifting their status in the society. The main reason, as the author pointed out, being the practice of wide scale polygamy. Because of this, most women were insecure especially if they are not the official wife. The women of Heian Japan rarely participated in any outdoor activities and usually spent her life indoors and hardly could distinguish between the days from night. But one positive characteristic was that they were all literate in the vernacular literature which led to fine literary works by women such as Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon.
As the author pointed out, the Heian period has two very contrasting aspects which I believed defined the patterns of Japanese culture. On one hand, is the love of colour, grandeur, pomp and fascination with elaborate court ceremonies with great religious processions, simply put, the celebration of life. Then the sombre picture of the world by the Buddhist doctrine as a place of universal suffering was an important element which reinforced, especially in the second half of the period, by the disquieting doctrine that the world was going to enter the hopeless era that the Buddha had predicted when he spoke of ‘the latter days of the law’. This made people like Ruth Benedict write ‘The Chrysanthemum And The Sword’ to understand these contrasting aspects of the Japanese way of life.
The author succeeds in bringing out a book that give a reader a wholesome view of every aspect of Heian Japan. His style of writing is detailed and effortless. For people who do not have a lot of time to go through the whole book, the first chapter will satisfactorily provide a bird’s eye view on the entire Heian period. The book is a winner; hands down
By Halley Nongmaithem