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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Literary Forms in Heian Japan: Poetics and Practice by Brian Steininger
  • Joan R. Piggott (bio)
Chinese Literary Forms in Heian Japan: Poetics and Practice. By Brian Steininger. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2017. xiv, 293 pages. $39.95.

In this collection of essays on cultural and literary developments during the tenth and eleventh centuries, Brian Steininger tells the story of how scholar-officials like Minamoto Shitagō (911–83) and Fujiwara Akihira (?–1066)—who have received little attention in either Japanese- or English-language scholarship—helped to develop new ways to write prose and poetry sinographically (in Chinese characters) while glossing and reading their texts in Japanese. By the eleventh century, the author argues, that practice resulted in "a new high vernacular" that he calls "Literary Sinitic." Steininger suggests the latter was one element of a broader "mid-Heian shift," from the bureaucratic ways of Chinese-style law codes promulgated at the turn of the eighth century to a mid-Heian court government that was aristocratic and patronage-based. These essays bring a wealth of new information and insights to readers, and I highly recommend the book. Nevertheless, I have questions about the "mid-Heian shift" as a way of understanding Heian history, as will be clear below.

In chapter 1, "Gifts and Governors," Steininger provides an overview of the court regime in the tenth century as "the lived world" in which his story begins. Particularly important to consider, he writes, is the decline of ritsuryō bureaucratic ideals, as the courtly society led by Northern Fujiwara regents grew more aristocratic and permeated by patronage practices. Candidates for office came to be nominated by patrons rather than being promoted because of good merit evaluations; and in terms of education, court leaders were tutored privately rather than attending the royal university. Moreover, the Chinese texts they read were glossed in a hybrid Japanese known as kundoku (literally, "read in Japanese"), which the author sees as an early step in the development of Literary Sinitic. Patrons of the scholars were senior court nobles, including regents. In the countryside, provincial governors, many of whom had been trained at the university, changed from being His Majesty's emissaries into tax farmers; and some of them, over time, amassed significant wealth, which they sent back to the capital to support the tennō-and-regent clique that appointed them. Still further down in the social hierarchy were provincial elites, who sometimes felt their own interests impinged upon—Taira Masakado (?–940) and the pirates of Fujiwara Sumitomo (?–941) are examples. They resisted the provincial governors by banditry, assassinations, protests, and even rebellions. [End Page 157]

In the later 930s, just when Masakado was rebelling and pirates were attacking tax shipments in the Inland Sea, Minamoto Shitagō, a great grandson of the early Heian ruler Saga Tennō (r. 809–23), was compiling Japan's first encyclopedia, the Wamyō ruijūshō (Categorized notes on Japanese words). Steininger notes how Shitagō used sinographs to cite not only Chinese texts but also to write Japanese names and terms phonetically, bringing the prestige language of Chinese and the Japanese vernacular together. In his preface, Shitagō recorded that at the time both men and women were reading and writing sinographs: the encyclopedia was in fact a response to a princess's plea to teach her more about names, places, and things in Japan. Happily, Steininger provides selections from the encyclopedia, as well as a translation of the preface.

We learn too that despite Shitagō's precocious talents, he was unhappy with his lot as a scholar and tutor: in Utsuho monogatari, a story collection he is thought to have compiled, men of superior cultural training and ability like himself are portrayed having difficulty getting promoted in rank and post. Shitagō's plaint was about more than being forgotten as a scholar—after all, he was a princely grandson of Saga who was never promoted beyond the upper fifth rank, the lowest rung of court society that could meet directly with the monarch. He sensed correctly that there were not many roles for princes or princesses in his day.

In chapter 2, "Honchō monzui and the Social Dynamics of Literary Culture," Steininger...


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