A Tale of Flowering Fortunes: Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period
The Heian age in Japanese history lasted for some four hundred years, from the end of the eighth century AD to the closing decades of the twelfth. The name Heian (“Peace and Tranquillity”) comes from Heian-kyo, the capital city established in 794, in emulation of the T’ang metropolis in China, Ch’ang-an. Heian-kyo was planned on a generous scale and covered a large area, with broad thoroughfares arranged on a rectangular pattern that is discernible to this day in its modern manifestation, the city of Kyoto. In the north central section of Heian-kyo the Greater Imperial Palace stood on about four hundred acres (the present Kyoto Palace takes up an area about half that size), and this was the social, cultural, and, in a ceremonial sense at any rate, political Parnassus of the Heian age.
Thanks to emaki picture scrolls and to Arthur Waley’s masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, a certain picture, however hazy, of Heian court life has taken shape in the imagination of the West. It is a picture that has much appeal; except perhaps for political and religious puritans and other killjoys. Writing many years ago, the Scottish historian of Japan, James Murdoch, delivered a harsh judgment on the aristocrats of Heian-kyo, describing them as “an everpullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti—as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worthy achievement, but withal the polished exponents of high breeding and correct ‘form.”‘ A more tolerant view would tend to dwell on the exquisite attention accorded by these “frivolous dilettanti” to forms of art such as poetry, fine costume, music, landscape gardening, and, of course, good manners. Moreover, during much of the Heian period governmental violence was absent—for example, capital punishment for political offenders—which contrasts very favorably with the bloody horrors of a later period. Heian court life, surely, perfected an aristocratic civilization in many ways as pleasing and humane as any that the world has known.
For much of the Heian era the real rulers of Japan were the Fujiwara, a family that attained the zenith of its power in the tenth century. For about a hundred years from the middle of that century the supremacy of the Fujiwara was particularly striking. Nobody illustrated this better than Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). In a formal sense he held high offices of state for only a brief period; but in Japanese history titular eminence has rarely been synonymous with predominant power. The Fujiwara had contrived to wind their tentacles around the imperial throne through intermarriage. Having married off a Fujiwara heiress to a youthful emperor (sometimes no more than a child) it was usually possible later on to induce him to abdicate—imperial duties could be very tedious, being sacerdotal as well as secular—in favor of his son, as soon as the latter was old enough to sit still throughout a palace ceremony.
Fujiwara-no-Michinaga had fourteen children, among whom were several attractive and intelligent daughters. The consequences were satisfactory; as may be judged from the fact that Michinaga…
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