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Japanese Literature Largely Influenced by the Chinese, The Classical Age of

Background: The Heian Period (794-1185)

In 784 AD, the Heavenly Emperor Kammu (781-806) decided to shake off the influence of the powerful Fujiwara family in his court in the city of Nara. So he ordered for a new capital to be built northwest of the old city. The royal palace in his new capital, Nagaoka, was finished in just six months. Kammu Tenno moved there with his family in the same year. But he could not escape the Fujiwara clan as many of his court’s highest officials descended from the clan and the emperor himself was married to a daughter of the Fujiwara family. This later led to the Classical Age of Japanese Literature that was largely influenced by the Chinese as recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History around 800 AD.

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Kammu Tenno remained in Nagaoka for ten years, but his stay there was less than peaceful. As an unsuccessful coup d’etat and deaths hounded his court. The possibility of going back to Nara was out of the question, so he decided it was high time to move to a new capital. He moved the court to the neighboring city of Yamashiro-no-Kuni and renamed in Heian-Kyo or Tranquility and Peace Capital (present-day Kyoto). When Emperor Kammu died in 806 AD, three of his sons ruled and abdicated in succession until the throne passed to his grandson, Ninmyo Tenno, in 833 AD.

“Men during Heian era were taught the Chinese language and writing, but women were taught in Japanese “

Although the royal family still held the crown, the influential Fujiwara family slowly gained ground in the court through their favorite method: marrying off Fujiwara daughters to Japanese emperors. In the middle of the ninth century, the nobleman Fujiwara no Yoshifusa arranged the marriage of his daughter Akirakeiko to Emperor Montoku (whose mother also came from the Fujiwara clan). Montoku died in 858 AD, and the couple’s son, the eight-year-old Seiwa, acceded the throne. The ambitious Fujiwara no Yoshifusa took advantage of this and declared himself as the child’s sessho (regent)—a role which he passed on to his adopted son, Fujiwara no Mototsune when he died in 872 AD. Emperor Seiwa came of age that year too, but Mototsune later forced him to abdicate in favor of Yozie, the emperor’s young son.

The Fujiwara clan continued to dominate the royal court for the next 300 years as Regents. While the emperors remained, they were nothing more than idle symbols of authority. Governance was modeled after Sui and Tang China, wherein ministers and other officials oversaw the administration of bureaus. The Heian Period was considered as the Golden Age of Japan, and the Fujiwara clan became the gatekeepers not only in politics but also in the realm of religion and the arts. The Fujiwara clan itself produced one of Japan’s greatest novelists, Lady Fujiwara Takako or better known by her pen name as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the Tale of Genji. Literature, religion, and politics were largely influenced by the Chinese during the early years of the Heian Period. Japan cut ties with China as the years progressed, and politics, as well as other aspects of courtly life, became more Japanese.

The Golden Age, however, only applied to courtly life as poverty caused by high taxes and poor administration was widespread outside the walls of Heian. The Fujiwara clan’s domination of Japanese politics ended in the late twelfth century when their alliance with the Minamoto clan was defeated by the prominent samurai clan of the Taira in the Genpei War (later immortalized in the epic Tale of Heike or Heike Monogatari).

Golden Age of Japanese Literature




  • Choka5-7-5-7-5-7 syllables per line and ends in 5-7-7
  • Long unrhymed poems of undefined length.
  • Considered as Japan’s most intricate form of poetry.
  • TankaFixed 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line
  • Short poems with a total of 31 syllables.

The sole form of poetry approved by the Heian court.

The Tang Dynasty was in a state of decline when Japan’s Heian Period was at its height. However, its influence on Japanese politics, arts, and literature was a testament to the dynasty’s greatness. During the early years of the ninth century, many Japanese poets wrote kanshi (Japanese poems that were written in kanji or Chinese characters). While the native Japanese poems called waka (also known as Yamato-uta) were largely forgotten or swept out of public life. Some of the most popular early ninth century poems, particularly the four seasons poetry, were also influenced by the Tang predecessor, the Six Dynasties.The choka form of waka disappeared during the same period, but another form of poetry called the tanka later rose and dominated the Heian court.

During the middle of the ninth century, Chinese influence on poetry had waned, and the native waka made a comeback. Its reappearance was credited to the imperial ladies who held poetry contests or uta uwase within their kokyu (apartments of the imperial consorts); the ladies were also credited with the rise in popularity of the byobu uta or poetry painted on folding screens.

Renowned Heian Period Poets

* Ono no Takamura (802-853) – poems included in the Kokin Wakashu.
* Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) – contributed poems to the Kokin Wakashu and Gosen Wakashu.
* Ki no Tomonori (850-904 – renowned Waka poet and compiler of the Kokin Wakashu.
* Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) – esteemed waka poet and compiler of the Senzai Wakashu.

Anthologies Compiled During the Heian Period

* Kokin Wakashu (905)
* Gosen Wakashu (951)
* Shui Wakashu (1006)
* Goshui Wakashu (1087)
* Kin’yo Wakashu (1126)
* Shika Wakashu (1157)
* Senzai Wakashu (1188)

Narrative Prose

Apart from poetry, the Heian Period was also the time when narrative prose rose to prominence and it includes genres such as:
* Poem tale (uta monogatari)
* Literary Diary (nikki bungaku)
* Romance
* Miscellany
* Historical tale

Few of the works of the Heian Period writers survived into the modern times. Those that did expressed the influence of the Chinese in a different way. Men during Heian era were taught the Chinese language and writing, but women were taught in Japanese and had to adapt their writing to the phonetic syllabary called kana (Japanese script based on Chinese writing system). Perhaps no other Japanese writer of the Heian Period was more popular than Lady Murasaki Shikibu, and her main work, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari). She showed the influence of the Chinese when she wrote it using the kana.

Just like in poetry, the noblewomen were at the forefront of the growth in Japanese narrative prose in the Heian Period. Sei Shonagon, a noblewoman in service of Empress Teishi, was one of the most renowned after she wrote about witty insights on the imperial court and collected them in the classic miscellany, Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book). Another noble lady who went by the name of ‘Michitsuna’s mother’ wrote the popular memoir, the Kagero nikki (Kagero Diary), which chronicled her life and her relationship with her husband, the courtier Fujiwara no Kaneie.

Picture By User:EmphraseOwn work, APL, Link
Picture By Convert to SVG by OsamaK from Image:Nihongo.png. based on w:Image:Nihongo Bunpou b.200×200.png. – Own work, Public Domain, Link
Department of Asian Art. “Heian Period (794–1185).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)
Hall, John Whitney., and Donald H. Shively. The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. II: Heian Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.
Reichhold, Jane. “A Glossary Of Literary Terms.” AHA Poetry. Accessed September 28, 2016.
“Writers of the Heian Era.” Women in World History. Accessed September 28, 2016.
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