Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exploring the World of the Shining Prince.

I am now the proud owner of three Penguin classics; As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams written by Lady Sarashina, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, and The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris. The first two are memoirs which, like the Tale of Genji, are written in eleventh century Japan. They have both been translated into English by Ivan Morris, a scholar of the Japanese language who died in 1976. Ivan Morris is also the author of the third book, which is an account of the court of eleventh century Japan.

I've already dipped into The World of the Shining Prince and found that there is, apparently, a recurring pattern in Japanese history. In the eighth, sixteenth and nineteenth century Japan imported ideas from China, 'the West' (i.e. Portugal, mainly) and northern Europe respectively. Each period was followed by a time of relative isolation, during which Japan consolidated and adapted the ideas and made them their own. The eleventh century was the era in which their consolidation of Chinese writing peaked. The men were taught to write in Chinese, but the women were free to use the phonetic version called kanabungaku. This was liberating, and allowed them to write the masterpieces described above. The men of the time stuck to traditional Chinese forms; frequently quoting from outdated, two hundred year old poetry.

The books themselves are second hand, and the pages are in various shades of yellow, but they are all perfectly serviceable, if a little fragile, and I am much looking forward to reading them.


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