The History of Classical Japanese Literature (日本の中古文学史)

Classical Japanese literature (Chuko Bungaku) refers to literature written in the Chuko (middle-older) era of Japanese history, especially that of the Heian period.


Chinese poetry and classics have flourished since ancient times, and Juyi BAI was an especially influential poet whose works were collected in "Wakan Roeishu" (Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing). The influence of Juyi BAI's "Changhen Ge" (The Song of Everlasting Sorrow) can be recognized in narratives written in kana (the Japanese syllabaries) such as "The Tale of Genji," especially in the chapter of 'Kiritsubo' (The Paulownia Court). The status of studying Chinese poetry, classics, and history, which were called Kidendo, was raised in the Daigaku-ryo, a governmental institution of learning. SUGAWARA no Michizane, who eventually became Udaijin (The Minister of the Right) from Monjo hakase, a professor of Kidendo, was known not only as a politician but also as an excellent scholar of literature.

In 905, "Kokin Wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry), the first Chokusen Wakashu (anthology of Japanese poetry compiled by Imperial command), was compiled and waka poetry came to be considered equal to Chinese poetry. Waka poems which were composed in public such as utaawase (poetry contest) became common and many poems were inscribed on folding screens. Consequently, Shikashu, a collection of poems by a prominent poet, also achieved recognition. When and by who the Shikashu was created is still unknown because each Shikashu was created in different situations, but there are many Shikashu which seem to have had influences on later poets and works such as the "Tsurayuki shu," a poem collection of KI no Tsurayuki and "Ise shu," a collection of Ise (poet)'s works.

Throughout the Heian period, male court nobles in politics used kanji (Chinese characters) for writing and sentences were all in kanji. On the other hand, 'hiragana' (Japanese syllabary characters) began to be used frequently for writing.
Because women such as court ladies in Kokyu (Empress's residence) used 'kana,' male government officials who had contacts with them also came to use 'kana.'
The flourishing of waka poetry mentioned above had something to do with 'kana,' which came into widespread use, along with the appearance of many female poets
Literary diaries written in kana began to be created such as "Tosa Nikki" (Tosa Diary), which was written in kana by KI no Tsurayuki who pretended to be a woman. In addition, Sei Shonagon wrote "Makura no soshi" (The Pillow Book), which included sections of essays, helping to establish essays as literary works.

This period is also characterized by many tales, including ones which do not exist any more. The history of tales began with "Taketori Monogatari" (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), which was mentioned in "The Tale of Genji" as the predecessor of tales, and many tales which are still exist were written: "Ise Monogatari" (The Tales of Ise), "Utsuho Monogatari" (The Tale of Utsuho), "Ochikubo Monogatari" (The Tale of Ochikubo), and so on. In the beginning of the Heian period, many of these tales seem to have been written by male writers, although more female writers came to create their works in kana, which is a distinguishing charcateristic. "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, which was written under the influence of many of the preceding literary works in both Chinese and kana, can be said to be a masterpiece of classical Japanese literature and has had a great influence on the entire history of Japanese literature.

Various collections of anecdotes were also compiled and the culture and literature in this period is represented by "Konjaku Monogatari Shu" (Tales of Times Now Past), which could be said to be a compilation of all the anecdotes from that period.

Background of literature

In this period, Kyoto was the center of art including literature and politics. The Kokufu Bunka (Japan's original national culture) flourished in the middle of the Heian period. A history book, "Okagami" (the Great Mirror), was written. In addition, Sarugaku (comical mimicry and speech performance) was popularized, and later it was perfected as Nogaku (the art of Noh).

[Original Japanese]