Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Japan and the first modern novel.

I'm reading Japan: Its History and Culture by W Scott Morton at the moment, and coming across some interesting information.

First, he compares Japan to Rome. Japan is to China as Rome was to the Ancient Greeks, he says. They were secondary cultures, importing and improving many cultural ideas, and in the process, he says, losing an innate delicacy.

For instance, what some regard as the first modern novel in the world was Japanese. It was called the 'Tale of Genji' and was written in Chinese in 1008 by a woman called Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Since women were not supposed to learn to read or write Chinese, she learnt by listening in to her brothers' lessons. She subsequently wrote her book in a simplified version. There are excerpts in the Morton book, and they do sound very modern. Her skill is compared to Jane Austin and Charlotte Bronte. The Japanese lack of restraint (compared to China's) is indicated, so Morton says, by Lady Murasaki's comment that her heroine's versification was not too good - writing poetry was thought to be an essential skill for a lady of the Imperial court. Presumably, the Chinese would have been not so picky.

This translation by Royall Tyler is supposed to be a good version of Lady Murasaki's work, keeping close to the original unfinished manuscript.

Other interesting facts are that Japan was first invaded in 1274 by the Moguls, and after a further attack in 1281 was not invaded again until world war two.

Another instance of longevity is the Imperial family. It has been in power ever since the first decade AD. Although its 'power' some of the time was very small. Because of the onerous number of ceremonies, and emperor would often abdicate or retire to leave an offspring (a child) as figurehead, then, from the peace and privacy of, say, a monastery, would lead his country as regent. When the emperor lost power due to lack of tax revenue and the supreme military leader or shogun took charge, then this shogun would also sometimes appoint a regent, so the person in power was even more removed.

The emperors were frequently impoverished, sometimes there was not enough revenue for a funeral so the body had to be kept for six weeks until enough money could be raised. And one way of raising money was by selling the monarch's autograph. Sometimes he would include a short poem or quote from a novel, maybe Murasaki's. So often when I read about history it seems that everything has been done already before.


Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Fascinating! I hadn't realised that some of the emperors were so poor and their power so limited. Sounds like an interesting book.

Wed Mar 09, 11:55:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

It is, Paul! It's quite thin, but is packed with interesting little snippets.

Thu Mar 10, 07:40:00 am  

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