Language, Images, and Representations of Japan in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)


A review of The Mirror of China: Language Selection, Images of China, and Narrating Japan in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) by Erin L. Brightwell

In her dissertation Erin Brightwell takes up a much overlooked text from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the surviving six fascicles of the The Mirror of China (Kara kagami), which originally consisted of ten fascicles. Many scholars both inside and outside Japan have worked with premodern Japanese historiography, but as Brightwell points out only few have included The Mirror of China in their discussions, thus adding to its marginal existence in the literary canon of Japan. The dissertation thus fills a gap in the narrative trajectory of how intellectuals in premodern society engaged the past and attempted to make sense of their own world and the world around them.

The Mirror of China was written in the tumultuous thirteenth century, when a new warrior regime tried to legitimize its own position within the Confucian world and the Mongol armies were destroying the last vestiges of Song imperial authority and power. The dissertation is not about China, nor about the past as such, but about why intellectuals used the subject matter to question and understand the upheavals of their own time. The China described in The Mirror of China had long been gone, and the intellectual interest in Chinese studies had similarly deteriorated. However, China and Chinese learning still retained a powerful symbolic position as the cradle of civilization to many intellectuals. By investigating the strategic use of Chinese history and linguistics, the dissertation sheds light on the influence of “classical learning,” even as that learning was gradually being superseded by other intellectual disciplines.

In Chapter 1, which takes on the shape of an introduction to the dissertation, Brightwell discusses the significance of linguistic choices made by the authors of medieval Japanese historical treatises. Through an investigation of the symbolic meanings of and different audiences for different linguistic styles, Brightwell sheds light on the relationship between forms and contents in medieval Japanese writings in general. In this endeavor she has been informed by works of LaMarre and Yoda and their critical discourses on language and writing forms in Heian Japan (Thomas LaMarre. Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensations and Inscription. Duke University Press, 2000; and Tomiko Yoda. “Literary History against the National Frame, or Gender and the Emergence of Heian Kana Writing”. Positions 8:2 (2000), pp. 465-97). The author of The Mirror of China, Fujiwara no Shigenori, differed from many other early medieval historians in writing his Mirror in a linguistic mix of classical Chinese (kanbun) and Japanese (wabun). By doing so, argues Brightwell, Shigenori could manipulate his readers in ways that a monolingual text could not. As Brightwell duly notes, recent studies by Lurie (David B. Lurie. The Origins of Writing in Early Japan: From the 1st to the 8th Century C.E.. PhD. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2001; and Lurie. Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing. Harvard University Asia Center, 2011) have grappled with the meaning and significance of kanbun writing, and she skillfully places her own arguments within this context of multilingual writing systems.

In the second chapter, Brightwell situates the production of The Mirror of China in the context of the family structure of the Fujiwara clan. It was the northern branch, represented by the famous Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028), of that family that directly or indirectly was responsible for the creation of two of the most famous historical treatises of the Heian period, The Tale of Flowering Fortunes (Eiga monogatari) and The Great Mirror (Ōkagami). Whereas the northern branch could boast impressive political power and legacy, the southern branch that Fujiwara Shigenori was born into was not as fortunate. The southern branch seemed to exist in an endless struggle for political and financial survival in the shadows of its illustrious northern branch rivals, which Brightwell suggests may have influenced Shigenori’s perception of history. Rather than emphasizing the splendors and achievements of the (predominantly northern) Fujiwara family and its enduring legacy, Shigenori addresses historical trajectories from the perspective of the changing fortunes of Chinese dynasties and a portrayal of China and Chinese civilization as transitory and non-static. In this way, Shigenori manages to show a world in flux where perpetual change dominates over narratives of stability. The Mirror of China thus seems to form a break from the standard narrative of the stability of the Japanese imperial reign, and by locating its discourse in China it safely produces a discussion of usurpation, treachery, and moral decay.

The Mirror of China was not just a translation of Chinese sources but, as Brightwell demonstrates in the third chapter, an assembly of images that explored boundaries and multiple simultaneous identities (p. 122). Its linguistic existence between Sinitic and Japanese world orientations made it possible for the author make his book “international” through the use of Chinese kanbun, but simultaneously a commentary on Japan (wabun). The China portrayed was thus not an informed image of contemporary China, but rather a privileged site of cultural origins and yet distinctly Othered sphere of deviance and misrule that Japan could mirror herself in (p. 140). Shigenori’s mobility between the different writing forms thus bridged the othered world and contemporary Japanese society.

In the fourth chapter, Brightwell closes in on how the images of China in Shigenori’s Mirror were construed. The overall picture is one of transition from good to bad. Ancient China that provided the cultural heritage that was transmitted to Japan was good and well-functioning. Through its selection of examples, however, The Mirror of China shows a country in decay and social confusion. Even the love stories are about violation of the social order and decaying moral standards (p. 193). Brightwell contrasts this image with the more widely known China Tales (Kara monogatari), which had a somewhat more romantic content. As Brightwell reminds us, the importance of the text is not so much in how the image of China in The Mirror of China differs from the “real” China and its history. After all, The Mirror of China says more about how people wished to see China both past and present and how people viewed Japan in the light of this construct of the Other.

The Mirror of China was not the only Mirror produced in premodern Japan, and in chapter 5 we are introduced to the three mirrors written in the Heian period and the two written in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Although historians traditionally have had a hard time defining any unifying traits between these Mirrors, Brightwell argues that authors like Shigenori could use the concept of Mirror to legitimize their work as something transcending mere sequential orderings of historical events. They were quite literally mirrors through which the present could reflect upon itself, something that monogatari were not. An important point that Brightwell raises with her discussion is that The Mirror of China seems to have bridged the earlier Mirrors, which were often about a single lineage or other private concerns, to the later The Mirror of the East (Azuma Kagami), which documented the early years of the Kamakura shogunate (pp. 295-99).

As an appendix, Brightwell has provided the reader with a full translation of The Mirror of China. Throughout her dissertation she does an excellent job of analyzing parts of the text, but the translation is a valuable contribution to the field in itself. The translation is held in a fluent narrative and is very readable, even for the uninitiated reader. It will be a valuable resource for instructors and students looking for sources on how Japanese intellectuals in the Kamakura period viewed their Chinese neighbors and, by extension, themselves in a changing world in the thirteenth century.

Brightwell’s dissertation will be of great interest to anyone working with language systems in premodern Japan. Her discussions of how the strategic use of language and writing systems in The Mirror of China enabled the author to engage in critical discourses will furthermore be very informative for scholars on historiography and political writings in premodern Japan. Finally, her discussions of how The Mirror of China portrayed China will be of great use to everyone with an interest in how Japan and not least the intellectual elite in medieval Japan perceived and engaged with their great neighbor to the West.

Morten Oxenboell
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Indiana University

Primary Sources:
Fujiwara no Shigenori藤原茂範 (ca. 1204 – ca. 1294). Kara kagami: shōkōkanbon 唐鏡:彰考館本. In Hirasawa Gorō and Yoshida Kōichi (eds.), Koten bungo, Tokyo, 1965.
Fujiwara no Shigenori藤原成範 (1135 – 1187). (and Kobayashi Yashuharu, ed.). Kara monogatari zenshaku 唐物語全釈, Kasama shoin, 1998.
Fujiwara no Tametsune. Ima kagami 今鏡. In Shintei zōho kokushi taikei 21.2, Kuroita Katsumi (ed.), 1-261. Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 1999 edition.
Ishikawa Tōru (ed.). Ōkagami 大鏡. Shinchōsha, 1989.
Jien. Gukanshō 愚管抄. In Nihon koten bungaku taikei 86, Okami Masao and Akamatsu Toshihide (eds), Iwanami Shoten, 1967.
Nakayama Tadachika. Mizu kagami 水鏡. Wada Hidematsu, ed. Iwanami Shoten, 1930.

Dissertation Information
Princeton University, 2014, 508 pp. Primary Advisor: Thomas W. Hare

Image: photo taken by author.

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