Monday 06 May 2002

Heian women’s writing

During the entire Heian period… Chinese remained the language of scholars, priests, and officials, occupying a role analogous to that of Latin in the West. Despite the steady emancipation from foreign tutelage, Chinese characters retained their overwhelming prestige and were the exclusive medium for any serious form of writing among men.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince

Upper-class Heian women were actively discouraged from learning to read and write in Chinese, no doubt to ensure that they posed no threat to male political dominance (although, as Morris points out, not until a thousand years later, after the Pacific War, would the status of Japanese women improve beyond that of their Heian ancestors).

In her diary, Murasaki Shikibu recounts that she would listen as her younger brother was learning the Chinese classics and that she

became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to grasp and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: “Just my luck!” he would say. “What a pity she was not born a man.” But then I gradually realized that people were saying “It’s bad enough when a man flaunts his Chinese learning; she will come to no good,” and since then I have avoided writing the simplest character.

Even so, after her husband’s death in 1001, she continued to read the Chinese books that he had left in a cupboard “crammed to bursting point,” thereby attracting the disapproval of her servants. “‘It’s because she goes on like this that she is so miserable. What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?’ they whisper.”

This prohibition conferred on Heian women an unintended advantage since it left them free to write in vernacular Japanese, employing an early variant of the hiragana script, called onnade (women’s writing).

For a period of about 100 years, the main genres of classical Japanese literature — nikki (diaries), kiko (travel accounts), zuihitsu (essays), and monogatari (tales or romances) — were pioneered by women writers who, using a supposedly inferior writing system, mastered the difficult process of forging (in Richard Bowring’s words) “a flexible written style out of a language that [had] only previously existed in a spoken form.”

The Tale of Genji

Their writing speaks to us across the gulf of a thousand years with passion and immediacy, in works such as Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the Izumi Shikibu Diary, the Gossamer Years, and the Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

Heian men persisted in writing in the Chinese-Japanese hybrid language which — as it was designed for the keeping of official records — was ill-suited to recording either spoken Japanese or the sad, sweet mysteries of everyday life. With one notable exception: Ki no Tsurayuki, a distinguished poet who adopted the persona of a woman to write the beautiful Tosa Diary in the hiragana script.

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Thank you!

Posted by Burningbird on 7 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Absolutely fascinating insights Jonathon. Thanks for sharing.

It is these moments that ensure that blogging is here to stay. Where else can you come across these little gems and quickly share them with a host of like-minded people.

Posted by Allan Moult on 7 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"Their writing speaks to us across the gulf of a thousand years with passion and immediacy..."

I had the same reaction after reading some of the works of nearly-contemporary European counterparts like Hildegard of Bingen - the women writers of the 11th and 12th century in Europe who also, coincidentally enough, advanced the use of their vernaculars. I couldn't help but ask myself, how different are the courts of the 12th century principalities of southern France and those of Heian Japan? Perhaps the rise of the Tokugawa was as bad for Japan culturally as the Albigensian crusade was for Europe.

The mind swims and wonders if I should have brought Christine de Pisan to work today. Thanks, Jonathon.

Posted by Brett Peters on 8 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour