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 arrived at a point in his life at which the reigning emperor was his grandson, the empress was his daughter, and a son directed the court as regent. But this by no means completed the network. Four more daughters were either married to crown princes or were “in waiting” on imperial personages. It was a situation in which Michinaga exulted. In one of his poems he wrote: “Like the full moon I shine / Uncovered by any cloud.” And in his fifties he could confess: “I have accomplished all that I could possibly desire.”

The world of Michinaga was that of Genji, so admirably interpreted for us by Waley’s pupil, the late Professor Ivan Morris, in The World of the Shining Prince. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Michinaga was the model for the fictional Genji himself (although most people think Murasaki Shikibu had in mind Michinaga’s nephew, Korechika). But certainly Michinaga was a “shining” figure, who could not have counted austere modesty as one of the higher virtues. He liked things to be done on a grand scale, whatever was involved—a poetry party, a procession, a palace ceremony, the building of a temple; and in each instance he was well in the limelight. Such demonstrations of bella figura attracted as a term of praise the Japanese expression eiga; which Ivan Morris translates as “glory” and which Professors William and Helen Craig McCullough render as “flowering fortunes.” Thus their two-volume translation of Eiga Monogatari, an eleventh-century chronicle, is entitled “A Tale of Flowering Fortunes.”

In a long and thoughtful introduction to their translation the McCulloughs point out that there was doubtless more than one author of the chronicle. They argue, however, that a substantial part of the work was probably written by a lady of the Heian court.


The materials, the treatment, and the point of view are so emphatically feminine that it is difficult to believe that any man of the Heian period could have been responsible for them…. The special attention given to births and marriages, the frequent and detailed descriptions of female attire and apartments, and the countless intimate scenes of exclusively female life are almost certainly the reflection of feminine interests and opportunities for observation, as is also the nearly total absence of such male pursuits as football, archery, drinking parties, and the conduct of Court and family business.

Although cautious about offering a definite identification, the McCulloughs accept the view of most Japanese scholars, which is that a court lady, Akazome Emon, may have composed much of the chronicle, probably in old age, looking back on events witnessed by herself forty or fifty years earlier. Whoever she was, the author seems to have belonged to that coterie of female writers who have earned the gratitude of posterity by their portrayal of the life and manners of the Heian court. Among their number, of course, were Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon (whose Pillow Book, thanks again to Ivan Morris, has enchanted modern readers).

What would the reader, then, who has no special knowledge about Japan discover in A Tale of Flowering Fortunes? The first thing to be said is that he will fail to encounter many features usually associated with traditional Japan. The World of the Shining Prince tells us that in the Heian world of the tenth and eleventh centuries the following did not exist: Noh and Kabuki drama, samisen music, the geisha, tatami matting, Bushido, the tea ceremony, Haiku poems, and the Zen approach to human experience. The Japan of the “feudal” shogunate would have been as alien to Heian society as twentieth-century Manhattan to the civilization represented by Peter Stuyvesant.

Secondly, A Tale of Flowering Fortunes invites the reader to savour a world in which elegance and color are often dimmed by intimations of melancholy and by manifestations of religious superstition. We are provided with glimpses of the many-layered kimono gowns worn by ladies of the court. Long hair, too, a much admired attribute of feminine charm, receives frequent attention. Writing about one of Michinaga’s daughters, the chronicler remarks: “Although the reader will not need to be told that Shoshi was very lovely, I must mention her hair, which trailed on the floor for five or six inches.” Processions and ceremonies were conceived as grand works of art:

Michinaga planned to hold a myriad-light service at the Hojoji around the Tenth of the Fourth Month…. All the members of society gathered on the appointed day, and all the buildings were opened, including the sutra treasury and the bell tower. Along the shores of the spotlessly clean lake there stood rows of jeweled trees made of the seven treasures, with lamps in silver and gold nets suspended from their branches…. Others lamps had been designed to resemble halberds bearing banners, or long-handled umbrellas, or floral plaques. It was all wonderful to behold, but nobody could absorb it peacefully with so many people around. If I concentrated on anything, I felt I was missing half the spectacle, so I really can’t describe every detail.

Now life, as we know, cannot consist entirely of amusements. Sickness and death are always nearby. But Heian Buddhism seems to have added an extra dimension to that awareness of lacrimae rerum felt by all but the most insensitive of us at one time or another in our lives. The silken sleeves of a Fujiwara gentleman were nearly always, it seems, moist with tears—not necessarily of sadness, it is true. Emotions of joy, or of religious awe, were invariably lachrymose in their expression—there is nothing remarkable in this even today, except to those reared in the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition. But an exquisite verse of poetry, the moonlight on a garden, feminine beauty perceived through the lattice of a hanging screen, the ox-drawn carriage of a princess, with the hemlines of her robes revealed below the closed shutters—these too brought tears to the eyes and sleeves.

What gave a special poignancy to the outlook of a Heian aristocrat was his keen appreciation of the transitoriness, the impermanence, of his world—the sense that all is vanity. The important influence here was Buddhism. For in Michinaga’s day the Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects dominated the scene, while blending in harmoniously with the relatively simple, though powerful, traditions of Shinto. Shinto is on the whole a life-accepting, this-worldly, down-to-earth, cheerful kind of faith. Heian Buddhism, on the other hand, induced among its adherents—and the “best people” (the most elegant) were very devout—a gentle yet profound melancholy amounting, it might be said, to a fundamentally pessimistic view of the world.


It is fair to point out, however, that the McCulloughs would not entirely agree with this particular argument, at least so far as A Tale of Flowering Fortunes is concerned. In their introduction they claim that the atmosphere of the work as a whole is affirmative, that there is little evidence to suggest that the chronicler saw the contemporary world in a pessimistic light. This must remain a matter of opinion; for the McCulloughs admit in a footnote that some commentators have attached “greater importance” to the notion of the transitoriness of human affairs as it appears in the chronicle.

Manifestations of superstitious beliefs and practices abound in A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, especially during the crises associated with sickness and death. Any illness seems to have been attributed to the malevolence of an avenging ghost or to the fury of one or more of the scores of Shinto deities (minor beings, no doubt, but apt to turn nasty if offended by a failure to observe certain taboos). Accordingly, a typical Fujiwara sickbed would require the presence of one or more mediums, through whom the malignant spirits might be persuaded to reveal and explain themselves. Moreover, life was geared to a careful observance of the ancient Yin-Yang Chinese dualistic cosmology. Masters of this esoteric set of beliefs had a very important part in all social arrangements, whether these were concerned with weddings, funerals, or matters of less weight such as poetry parties or visits to relatives and friends. Yet it is of interest, perhaps, to note that the Bureau of Divination, to which the Yin-Yang masters belonged, was not reckoned to be one in which members of the upper classes should serve. As the McCulloughs put it, members of the bureau “were considered technicians.”

It need hardly be said that the reader will find little mention of ordinary people outside the court hierarchy. Like Murasaki Shikibu, the chronicler evidently thought of the common folk—when she thought of them at all—as part of the general background. Her attitudes are suggested by some comments in a passage describing the preparations for the dedication of the Great Buddha Hall of the Hojoji (created by Michinaga):

It was especially amusing to observe the frantic activity of poverty-stricken mountain folk everywhere, who, quite unconnected with the dedication, nevertheless busily dyed and sewed away at makeshift finery, determined to catch a glimpse of the proceedings when the great day arrived.

If her concern for those outside the charmed circle of the Fujiwara finds no reflection in her text, the chronicler, alas, does not make up for this by describing in any depth the characters and personalities of the men and women who formed her own world. One might have expected to be presented with a rounded, lively portrait of Michinaga. But the McCulloughs observe:

The author’s preoccupation with glory and splendor reduces her hero, in the end, to a one-dimensional cut-out. He may indeed have been uninteresting—there are enough dull despots in history to permit the conjecture—but we are not told enough to let us judge even that much.

This is a verdict that errs very slightly on the harsh side. The reader who allows himself to be seduced by the atmosphere of the chronicle, who presses on, undismayed by the heavy going in some chapters of the text, will be able to form some impression, although a superficial one, of what Michinaga may have been like. He strikes one as a very human despot; a great show-off, devoted to his offspring and grandchildren. We are given a glimpse of this family man doting on a grandchild, an infant who will be a boy-emperor within a few years:

Michinaga dropped in at all hours of the day and night, taking the Prince from the nurse’s arms and holding him as though he were an indescribably precious object. One can easily understand his emotions. He even seemed to enjoy it when the baby wet on his robes.

The McCulloughs’ translation of A Tale of Flowering Fortunes demands a measure of persistence from the reader not specially interested in Japanese history; but for those at all fascinated by the Heian age the translation must be a source of considerable intellectual pleasure. Indeed, this is a work of the most praiseworthy scholarship. The introduction, appendices, footnotes, and voluminous supplementary notes (at the end of the second volume) make up an apparatus of interpretative learning of great distinction. For William and Helen McCullough the labor involved must have been immense. Scholars of Japanese history and literature will be forever in debt to this professorial couple, who with their scrupulous concern for the highest standards could be the reincarnation of two “flowering” Fujiwara.

This Issue

April 16, 1981