Chinese-style Writing in Japanese Literary Culture, 950-1250


A review of Primers, Commentaries, and Kanbun Literacy in Japanese Literary Culture, 950-1250CE, by Jennifer Guest.

Although the Heian period is famously associated with the development of classical Japanese “wabun” literature, Heian elites were also literate in Chinese-style writing. In fact, much of what they wrote relied on this mode of literary production, known (among other names) as kanbun. In her dissertation, Jennifer Guest has set out to redress the imbalance in studies to date by investigating the use of kanbun primers during Japan’s late tenth to early thirteenth centuries. She is interested in the way kanbun literacy functioned within the cultural setting of classical Japanese canonical works like The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji, and how kanbun literacy was defined by later generations of scholars, monks, and courtiers who appropriated the canon of the Heian court. The decision to focus on primers, rather than more advanced texts, provides a useful investigative thread linking readers and writers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including male and female courtiers, university scholars, medieval monks, and warriors.

Following the recent work of David Lurie, Guest seeks to move closer to the concrete experiences of readers by breaking down simplistic wabun/kanbun dualities and instead considering broad patterns of education and intersecting literacies. In her introductory chapter, she notes that learning to read and write in Heian Japan “involved internalizing accepted combinations of orthography, linguistic register, and literary style” (p.15). The two main types of orthographic variation were logographs (mana) and phonographs (kana), often associated with “Chinese” and “Japanese” respectively. Guest’s dissertation is based on the premise that a strict binary distinction between “Chinese” mana and “Japanese” kana writings has limited usefulness for dealing with Heian texts, since a variety of orthographic combinations were used depending on style and genre (pp.16-23).

In addition to orthographic variations, kanbun texts could also be read in different ways. These methods of recitation may be loosely classified as ondoku (“sound reading”) and kundoku (“gloss reading”). Briefly summed up, ondoku approximated the sounds and word order of spoken Chinese, and kundoku involved syntactical rearrangement to bring the text closer to the norms of Japanese. Guest notes that just as the seeming dichotomy between kanbun and wabun, or mana and kana writings is in fact based on situational considerations of genre and style, “the apparently neat and convenient opposition between ondoku and kundoku tended to become a matter of subtle gradation in the context of actual literary practice, with most reading combining elements of both approaches” (p.4).

In Chapter One, before considering the primers in detail, Guest notes that in Heian Japan these traditions of reading kanbun aloud were largely curated and transmitted through families associated with the state university (daigakuryō), and that university-trained scholars often served as private tutors. Thus, although the primers which form the focus of the dissertation were a less official resource for acquiring kanbun literacy than the canonical state university curriculum through which official scholars passed, there was nonetheless significant interplay between university learning and more popular routes to literacy. Pages 30-34 contain a useful introduction to the state university and its kanbun practices.

Outside of the university context there was no unified curriculum for acquiring basic kanbun literacy. However, five texts “particularly stand out for their frequent appearance in educational contexts” (pp.34-35): The Thousand Character Classic (Jp. Senjimon, Ch. Qianzi wen), the Child’s Treasury (Jp. Mōgyū, Ch. Mengqiu), Li Jiao’s Hundred-Twenty Compositions (Jp. Hyaku nijū ei, Ch. Bai ershi yong), Bai Juyi’s ‘New Ballads’ (Jp. Shin gafu, Ch. Xin yuefu), and the Japanese and Chinese-style Chanting Collection (Wakan rōeishū). They were also surrounded by a network of supporting texts which included topical encyclopedias, anthologies, and literary handbooks.

Chapter Two considers the Thousand Character Classic, one of the most widely used primers for acquiring basic literacy. A rhymed set of one thousand different written characters each appearing only once, the text comprises a series of statements that conveyed basic information on cosmology, history, and morality. It was composed by the Liang period scholar Zhou Xingsi in the early sixth century but the most widely circulated version was copied by a descendant of the famous Jin dynasty calligrapher, Wang Xizhi, in close imitation of Xizhi’s style, and so the Thousand Character Classic acquired popularity as a calligraphic manual for beginners to imitate. The worldview presented by the contents of the text is centred on imperial government and court life, and communicated aspects of morality or common-sense to readers while they were learning basic literacy from its pages. Guest discusses the Japanese reception of the Thousand Character Classic, arguing for its threefold authority: as a written character text with symbolic links to the calligrapher Wang Xizhi, as a key sound-based text for learning ondoku recitation traditions, and as a commentarial authority. She also discusses Thousand Character Classic Continued (Zoku Senjimon, 1132), a parodic tribute to the Thousand Character Classic. Although the primer was used for the acquisition of basic literacy, its parody was aimed at scholars and thus illustrates the varied social roles of educational texts.

In Chapter Three, Guest explores the literary and social implications of kanbun education by examining the role of kanbun knowledge in what is generally regarded as a “Japanese” wabun classic: Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi, early 11th century). Although the court of Emperor Ichijō around the turn of the eleventh century is now famous for having produced wabun texts like the Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, c.1008) it was also an era during which kanbun knowledge was an important part of social interaction. Fujiwara Kintō’s Japanese and Chinese-style Chanting Collection was composed at this time, and within the court there was a fashion for kanbun quotation set by top officials. Ichijō’s rival empresses Teishi (Sei Shōnagon’s patron) and Shōshi, together with their ladies-in-waiting, “used kanbun-based wit as part of their social arsenal as they maneuvered for imperial favor” (p.8). In the Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon demonstrates the social and creative uses of essential kanbun knowledge. Guest argues that this reflects “patterns of education that shaped an informal canon of introductory or accessible kanbun suited for conversational quotation among both men and women” (p.8).

Chapter Four examines the way that kanbun texts, including primers, were interpreted and recreated through commentary. The analysis is centered on Condensed Meaning of the New Ballads (Shin gafu ryakui, 1172), a commentary on Bai Juyi’s ‘New Ballads’ by the monk Shingyū. The poetry of the Tang poet, Bai Juyi, was hugely significant in Heian literary culture. Guest notes that Bai Juyi’s ‘New Ballads’, a set of fifty social-criticism poems found in volumes three and four of the poet’s Complete Works (Hakushi bunshū), often played a special role as an introduction to his other work. Shingyū’s was the earliest full-fledged commentary on the ‘New Ballads’, and Guest argues that his work illustrates an important trend across all literary genres in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries: the repackaging of Heian court classics into an introductory canon for the education of wider audiences (including the new warrior elite). Textual commentaries like Shingyū’s, together with oral lectures, were an integral part of reading, reflecting and shaping what readers discovered in kanbun texts like the ‘New Ballads’.

Chapter 5 turns to the early medieval period as Guest takes up another example of the way that kanbun primers were reworked for the benefit of wider audiences: Waka Poems on the Child’s Treasury (Mōgyū waka, 1204), by Minamoto no Mitsuyuki. This primer takes anecdotes from the Child’s Treasury, a Tang collection of stories about historical figures, and rearranges them by season along the lines of a waka anthology, supplying a waka poem and prose retelling for each anecdote. In order to make the anecdotes more accessible to readers without kanbun training, Mitsuyuki combined several strategies, including topic-based structure for ease of reference, poetry for ready memorization, and anecdotal commentary. Such strategies were common to educational texts of Mitsuyuki’s day. Guest argues that Waka Poems on the Child’s Treasury is both an explanatory commentary and a creative poetic exercise, and that this shows the way in which educational contexts could foster innovative literary activity.

The afterword concludes the dissertation with a brief look at possible paths for future research, including Japanese kanbun literacy in a comparative context. Exploring the comparison between classical Chinese and Latin from an educational perspective, Guest argues that juxtaposing these two educational traditions highlights the worldwide importance of textual commentary in shaping the circulation of knowledge. Although there are significant differences in the transmission of Latin and classical Chinese as literary languages, Guest notes similarities such as the commonality of certain educational techniques like mnemonic poetry and didactic anecdote as seen throughout the dissertation in relation to Heian kanbun primers.

By considering a selection of the voluminous research which interrogates the identity of so-called “classical Chinese”, and by opening up the world of Heian kanbun primers, Guest’s lucid dissertation makes a meaningful contribution to the emerging discussion about “Japaneseness” and “Chineseness” in early Japanese literacy. Although scholars have long acknowledged that most members of the Heian elite did not speak Chinese, there has nonetheless been a tendency to describe kanbun using “Chinese” as a convenient shorthand, with the result that kanbun works written by Japanese scholars in history have often been partitioned off and overlooked. In addition to providing a helpful corrective to the focus on Heian wabun, Guest’s work brings the field a step closer to understanding how questions of early Japanese literacy might be discussed and understood in a manner more closely approximating the realities of the day. The dissertation will certainly be of interest to scholars of Japan. For its thoughtful discussion of matters pertaining to early education and cultural contact it may also interest scholars of premodern literacy and cultural studies more generally.

Rebekah Clements
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources

Qianzi wen 千字文
Zoku Senjimon 続千字文
Makura no sōshi 枕草子
Shin gafu ryakui 新楽府略意
Mōgyū waka 蒙求和歌
Other literary (primer) works from the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 224 pp. Primary Advisors: David B. Lurie and Haruo Shirane.

Image: Waka Poems on the Child’s Treasury (蒙求和歌), Naikaku bunko.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like