Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Read for fun: The World of the Shining Prince - Court Life in Ancient Japan

"The World of the Shining Prince" is a book I kept from a college class. It was a history course about the Far East. Between all the reading assignments, I didn't have time to read all of it (or even most of it) so I kept it. Only recently did I finish it.

This is a broad look at the Heian Era of Japan, and specifically, the court life at the capital. It covers many subjects from the structure and function of the government, religion, literary culture, taboos and superstitions, relations between men and women and, of course, the history of the period and some other things.

This is not a novel so I cannot use my usual method of critique. Interestingly though, one of its major sources is indeed a novel, "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, one of the capital's court ladies in the tenth century.

It's interesting stuff. It starts with an argument about how creative and sophisticated Heian high culture was, not a copy of something else. Rather, that after a period of importing stuff from China, it spent another period, for lack of a period word, "Japanizing" it to create something new that worked for them. The author argues that this is a parallel to a more recent copy-and-transform period that took place after WWII.

The following chapters give focus to the areas mentioned earlier. The source of this information is primarily literary records and other written works. Murasaki's "Tale of Genji" and her diary are the most prominent. Second is the "Pillow Book" by Sei Sh┼Źnagon and many others are quoted or referenced. Indeed, the author states that Japan's Heian Era has unusual riches for the historian when it comes to written records, but certain sectors of the society are much better covered than others due to most of the writers being court ladies.  This reliance is balanced with evidence from other sources and a mindset that makes allowances for poetic license, exaggeration, etc.

One of my favorite sections was about the Fujiwara family and the methods they used to stay in control through the period. This included the many ways they used imperial power such as making the emperor himself a figurehead and making their own offices the only ones with de-facto power. It is my favorite because I find it interesting, it contrasts with the government in place in my time and country, and also because it had the side-effect that the imperial family outlasted the period and became one of the longest reigning "ruling families" in the world because they didn't actually rule.

I enjoyed reading this book and I found it informative. I don't have any other book on the period to compare it to and its methods seemed sound to me. That's what I'm judging it on.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The World of the Shining Prince" an A+

Click here for the previous book review (for fun): The Book of Wizardry

Click here for the next book review (also for fun): The Italian City City Republics

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

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