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The World of the Shining Prince

The World of the Shining Prince:  Court Life in Ancient Japan by Ivan Morris

The "Shining Prince" of the title is in fact a fictional character -- Prince Genji of the Tale of Genji -- because this might also be subtitled the setting of that novel, written by a court lady in Heian Japan, about the court of Heian Japan.  Indeed, the last two chapters concentrate on that momementual work.  Before then, however, it provides the court life it was set in -- mining both it and the contemporary Pillow Book, also by a court lady, for information.

Starting with how the misfortunes, believed to be caused by the death of a prince -- "of illness" while he was traveling to exile after being implicated in the death of politician -- who was not appeased by being posthumously appointed emperor cause them to uproot the capital and move it to a new location, discovered on a hunting trip (like Versailles), which is now Kyoto and is the scene of the court in question.  And how Japan drew back from Chinese contact, no longer sending emissaries, though still heavily involved with Chinese writing and practices.  (Indeed, some older dynasty stuff is known only because it was preserved in Japan.)

The setting, from the islands that were taken in, to the architecture of the palace.  Discussion of the means of travel -- ox-cart usually, because horse back is not appropriate to courtiers -- and how slow it was, and how long, therefore, all the distances were so much greater.  A woman who travels the ten miles to the city realizes that her lover, complaining of the distance, was not showing coldness of heart but truly facing a great challenge.  The houses they lived in, with their screens.  A young man falls in love with his stepmother at first sight -- even though they had lived in the same household his entire life.  A man becomes fascinated with his stepdaughter who moved to his house when a small girl, and yet whom he has never seen.  Genji was honored once to have a glimpse of the woman he wooed -- by firefly light.

The political structures, with young emperors married off to Fujiwara consorts several years their elder, and being forced to abdicate in their thirties, in the meantime keeping on their old Fujiwara regent as their chancellor -- effectively, the actual head of government.  The useless masses of bureaucracy in which most of the book's male characters held nominal jobs.  Some discussion of what it will lead to in the future, when the military powers get more strength.  The loathing for lands outside the capital, from which exile was such a burden.  The marriage politics.  A man not the emperor was delighted with the birth of a daughter, giving him a chance to even claim the emperor as his son-in-law.  The Fujiwara got so high-handed with this that they even refused their daughters to lower-ranking members of the imperial house.

The religious influences of Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism -- the last was not as strong as it would be, since a man managed to murder his elderly parents without being punished, let alone executed horribly.  Buddhism is not Zen, yet to develop, but the colorful and lavish Shingon.  And the next chapter is on superstitions and particular on unfortunate directions, which have a lot of impact on the plot of the Tale; a man can not return home from the house of the woman he seeks to seduce, because of the direction.

Life at court.  Their games, their religious rituals -- above all else, their cult of beauty and such things as the "judgments" that they held to assume themselves.

Their martial practices.  The primary wife was approximately the same rank, and was carefully arranged, but secondary wives/concubines could have a lot of difference in rank.  To be sure, if the man did not properly acknowledge the concubine's children, their subsequent lives could be parlous, the primary wife for both jealousy and love for her own children would be a danger, and the primary wife or a higher-ranking concubine, being childless, might take the children for her own.  Outside, there was consirable freedom of men and women having affairs -- many concubines were regularizing situations that had lasted many years -- and considerable confusion about paternity.  The grave difficulty of a woman even of highest rank who had no man to act on her behalf.

A book covering an intriguing era.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
asakiyume
May. 31st, 2013 12:05 pm (UTC)
It's a great introduction to Heian culture.
marycatelli
May. 31st, 2013 12:21 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah.

It makes reading Lois McMaster Bujold's Cetaganda more interesting, too.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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