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The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

Ivan Morris

London: Peregrine, 1964 (1986 reprint); Pages: 348

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

There are two main uses of this superb book. First, it could be read as a study of the aristocracy in Heian (tenth-century) Japan. In that, it is brilliant, entertaining, and comprehensive. Second, it could be read, and used, as a reference to the monumental THE TALE OF GENJI. Without the background provided by Dr. Morris, much of the book may be lost on the modern reader, Western and Japanese alike, and although the better translations will make the novel understandable, many of the motivations, problems, and emotions of the characters would appear contrived, if at all believable. Whichever purpose it serves, this book does it well.

As the author repeatedly stresses, the book pertains to the lives of a tiny percentage of Heian population, that of the aristocracy, who were several thousand out of several million. Following a chapter on politics and society, which describes the marriage politics of the Fujiwara clan, the book dives into the really interesting material. The chapters or religions and superstitions are rewarding and helpful to the extent that the reader will not be hopelessly confused by the morass that Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, all in their various incarnations, and indigenous superstitions had evolved in. The reader will not be an expert, if such a thing is possible, either.

The three absolute best chapters of the book deal with the "good people" (aristocracy), the cult of beauty, and the position of women in society. This is where we learn just how alien Heian Japan is from anything the West has experienced. The unbelievable sense of aesthetics, and the extent to which aesthetic beauty substituted for moral goodness, both defining characteristics of that ancient society, are perhaps too remote for modern readers to fully grasp. However, some knowledge of the ancient Greek culture, with a similar equivalence between physical beauty and spiritual goodness, can be helpful. Other aspects of Heian high society, however, are still puzzling. For example, the primacy of literature, poetry, calligraphy, and the arts in general. Although one can find similar periods in Europe (e.g. the Renaissance, or the way aristocrats generally supported the arts), the extent to which these played a role in the everyday life in Kyoto, is amazing (and surely an envy for many aspiring literary people). Finally, the position of women, as Morris points out, was a curious mixture of political impotence, economic independence or semi-dependence, and complete subordination. Although women were generally treated as inferior, it is clear that they could legally inherit and own property, as well as engage in all sorts of leisurely activity. All of this to an extent that many Europeans of the late nineteenth century would envy.

Ivan Morris is an eminent scholar of Japanese literature and will be familiar to Western readers through his excellent translations of various works, such as AS I CROSSED A BRIDGE OF DREAMS, and the PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON (whose author appears to be a favorite of the translator). The writing is lucid, engaging, and never unclear, even in the most obscure references, which are conveniently explained. Morris does not presuppose any knowledge of Japan, but some historical awareness is certainly helpful to put things into perspective. The brief appendix on the tenth century could serve as an introduction to comparative analysis. Of course, at that time Europe was so abysmally low on the aesthetic scale, that a comparison might be meaningless except perhaps to emphasize the contrast. The book is a must read for anyone interested in Japanese history in general or who is contemplating reading THE TALE OF GENJI (or any of the other tenth-century works).

April 16, 2001. BLS

    TITLE     = {The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan},
    AUTHOR    = {Ivan Morris},
    YEAR      = {1964},
    PUBLISHER = {Peregrine},
    ADDRESS   = {London},
    ISBN      = {0-14-055083-6},
    NOTE      = {Pp. 348, genealogy, glossary, bibliography, index}