Heian Literature

Movement: Heian Literature
Dates: 794 - 1185

The Heian period (, Heian jidai) is the last division of classical Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. The period is named after the capital city of Heian-ky, or modern Kyoto. It is a period in Japanese history when Chinese influences were in decline and the national culture matured. The Heian period is also considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature. Although the Imperial House of Japan had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried with the imperial family. Many emperors actually had mothers from the Fujiwara family. Heian () means "peace" in Japanese.


Although written Chinese (Kanbun) remained the official language of the Heian period imperial court, the introduction and widespread use of kana saw a boom in Japanese literature. Despite the establishment of several new literary genres such as the novel and narrative monogatari () and essays, literacy was only common among the court and Buddhist clergy.

Poetry, in particular, was a staple of court life. Nobles and ladies-in-waiting were expected to be well versed in the art of writing poetry as a mark of their status. Every occasion could call for the writing of a verse, from the birth of a child to the coronation of an emperor, or even a pretty scene of nature. A well-written poem could easily make or break one's reputation, and often was a key part of social interaction. Almost as important was the choice of calligraphy, or handwriting, used. The Japanese of this period believed handwriting could reflect the condition of a person's soul: therefore, poor or hasty writing could be considered a sign of poor breeding. Whether the script was Chinese or Japanese, good writing and artistic skill were paramount to social reputation when it came to poetry. Sei Shnagon mentions in her Pillow Book that when a certain courtier tried to ask her advice about how to write a poem to the Empress Sadako, she had to politely rebuke him because his writing was so poor.

The lyrics of the modern Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, were written in the Heian period, as was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, one of the first novels ever written. Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival Sei Shnagon's revealing observations and musings as an attendant in the Empress' court were recorded collectively as The Pillow Book in the 990s, which revealed the quotidian capital lifestyle. The Heian period produced a flowering of poetry including works of Ariwara no Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu, Saigy and Fujiwara no Teika. The famous Japanese poem known as the Iroha (), of uncertain authorship, was also written during the Heian period.



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External links

  • Heian art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Heian art and calligraphy at the Tokyo National Museum
  • Heian art at the British Museum

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