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  • Plucking Chrysanthemums: Narushima Ryūhoku and Sinitic Literary Traditions in Modern Japan by Matthew Fraleigh
  • Jonathan Zwicker
Plucking Chrysanthemums: Narushima Ryūhoku and Sinitic Literary Traditions in Modern Japan. By Matthew Fraleigh. Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. 498 pages. Hardcover, $65.00/£52.95/€58.50.

After returning to Japan in the summer of 1908 from five years in the United States and France, Nagai Kafū (1879–1959) wrote often and at length on the period of his youth, the late 1880s and 1890s, in essays and in his most famous novella, Sumidagawa (The River Sumida; 1909). One particularly evocative account of the several weeks he spent on the coast in Zushi in the mid-1890s, when he was fourteen or fifteen, describes how “sometimes imitating, sometimes directly plagiarizing the mixed Sinitic style of Narushima Ryūhoku [1837–1884],” his youthful self “adopted the persona of the sorrowful life of a misfortunate and sickly genius who has left behind the bustling metropolis and lives in a thatched hut by the ocean listening to the sound of the wind in the pines.” Reading these passages in the present, he adds, he cannot help but burst out laughing.1

Kafū’s memory of those years—a time when, as he recounts elsewhere, he was “given over to the most heartfelt of poetic sentiment”2—is shot through with discomfort, even embarrassment. The discomfort is over not only his own youthful precocity but also the object of his copying, Narushima Ryūhoku, and what Kafū would in [End Page 189] still another work suggestively call the “sensibility of the mixed-up new age of early Meiji” embodied by this poet.3 For Kafū as for other men who came of age in the late nineteenth century—including, from a slightly older generation, Tsubouchi Shōyō and Mori Ōgai—that sensibility was an object both of intense nostalgia and of a certain anxiety: indeed, nostalgia itself was a source of discomfort, as the literary figures they had aspired to emulate had come to seem outdated, to be ghosts of a bygone age.

In the century since Kafū recalled his youth, Narushima Ryūhoku’s reputation has, like that of many important writers, fluctuated. At the end of the Meiji period Ōgai would sum up the sensibilities of the world represented by Ryūhoku’s literary journal Kagetsu shinshi as “some event of the times that a scholar of Chinese studies had chosen to work up in literary style” defined in large part by its transitional nature, coming at a time when “new style novels and plays had yet to make their appearance” and “in the field of lyric poetry, the haiku of Masaoka Shiki and waka of Yosano Tekkan” were still things “of the future.”4 These quotations from Gan (The Wild Goose; 1911–1913) suggest that this transitional nature was a question not only of subject and style but also, significantly, of language—that an important distance separated the literary world of the 1870s and early 1880s, when Ryūhoku and his circle wrote often in literary Chinese, from the “new style” vernacular that came to dominate fiction, drama, and poetry by the close of the century.

Indeed, as Matthew Fraleigh points out in Plucking Chrysanthemums: Narushima Ryūhoku and Sinitic Literary Traditions in Modern Japan, in the 1890s “the status of Sinitic writings by Japanese authors was radically reevaluated under the influence of a ‘national literature’ paradigm” (p. 6). For the better part of a century, Ryūhoku, a writer of enormous importance and substantial reputation during his own lifetime, fell into relative literary obscurity, and it was not until the mid-1970s that Maeda Ai’s pioneering work on him began to make sense of his significance to the modern canon. As Fraleigh notes, the reevaluation of Ryūhoku’s work that followed also formed part of a broader reevaluation of the place of writing in literary Chinese within Japanese literature.

Plucking Chrysanthemums is a work of enormous erudition that brings to readers in vivid detail the remarkable and varied life of this significant but often neglected figure of Japan’s late nineteenth century. Ryūhoku’s life, and...


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