Genji Monogatari: "The Tale of Genji"

Kisetsu On living in tune with the seasons

The "Tale of Genji" represents a pinnacle of indigenous Japanese prose-writing It was composed just after 1000 by Shikibu Murasaki, a lady-in-waiting. The nov­el's heroine, who bears the same name as the author­ess, supplies both a wealth of observations on elegant Heian court society and astonishingly detailed accounts of the palace gardens and their (unctions - not least as a setting for romantic encounters.

Japanese art historians have summarized the garden of the Heian period as chisen shuyu teien, which trans­lates literally as "pond-sprmg-boating garden", in other words a garden with a pond whose waters are fed by a spring or garden stream, and which is de­signed to be enjoyed by boat. If we turn to Chapter 24 of the "Tale of Genji"26, we find a description of a boating party in Murasaki's spring garden which aptly illuminates this concept:

"Numbers of (Murasaki's) young women who were thought likely to enjoy such an outing were therefore rowed out over the south lake, which ran from Mura­saki's south-west quarter to her south-east quarter, with a hillock separating the two. The boats left from the hillock. Murasaki's women were stationed in the fishing pavilion at the boundary between the two quarters.

The dragon and phoenix boats were brilliantly de­corated in the Chinese fashion. The little pages and helmsmen, their hair still bound up in the page-boy manner, wore lively Chinese dress, and everything about the arrangements was deliciously exotic, to add to the novelty, for the empress's women, of this south­east quarter. The boats pulled up below a cliff at an island cove, where the smallest of the hanging rocks was like a detail of a painting. The branches caught in mists from either side were like a tapestry, and far away in Murasaki's private gardens a willow trailed its branches in a deepening green and the cherry blos­soms were rich and sensuous. In other places they had fallen, but here they were still at their smiling best, and above the galleries wisteria was beginning to send forth its lavender. Yellow kerria reflected on the lake as if about to join its own image. Waterfowl swam past in amiable pairs, and flew in and out with twigs in their bills, and one longed to paint the mandarin ducks as they coursed about on the water."

From this point on they composed poem after poem in an attempt to capture the beauty of the moment. Once back indoors the party continued through the night, with poetry and music-making. Then: "Morning came. From behind her fences, Akikonomu listened to the morning birds and feared that her autumn garden had lost the contest."

The gardens of the Heian period were elegant and colourful, and the festivities held within them were in­fused with a joyous, light-hearted spirit. They inspired their visitors to express their love of nature through poetry and music. Murasaki's description of the boat­ing party is full of references to the natural signs of spring, and this fascination with the passing seasons is a thread which can be found running through the dia­ries, novels, poems and paintings of the Heian period as a whole. Anyone who has lived in Japan - and par­ticularly Kyoto - for any length of time will know that spring and autumn are the two seasons closest to the Japanese heart: spring because it is the season in which nature awakens to new life in a burst of fresh and strong colours, autumn for its more subdued rush of yellows, reds and purples and its note of sadness.

Prince Genji tells his favourite lady-in-waiting Akiko-numi, whose name literally means "lover of autumn": "But aside from house and family, it is nature that gives me the most pleasure, the changes of the seasons, the blossoms and leaves of autumn and spring, the shifting patterns of the skies. People have always debated the relative merits of the groves of spring and fields of au­tumn, and had trouble coming to a conclusion. I have been told that in China nothing is held to surpass the brocades of spring, but in the poetry of our own coun­try the preference would seem to be for the wistful notes of autumn. I watch them come and go and must allow each its points, and in the end am unable to de­cide between song of bird and hue of flower. I go fur­ther within the limits allowed by my narrow gardens. I have sought to bring in what I can of the seasons, the flowering trees of spring and the flowering grasses of autumn, and the humming of insects that would go unnoticed in the wilds. This is what I offer for your pleasure. Which of the two, autumn and spring, is your own favourite?"

These and the following passages on Murasaki's spring garden and Akikonomu's autumn garden sug­gest firstly that Prince Genji saw his courtly ladies as personifications of the qualities of their favourite gar­dens and, secondly, that he had built his palace in the form of a mandala, with the four gardens of his four favourite ladies corresponding to the cardinal point appropriate to their season:

"The hills were high in the south-east quarter where spring-blossoming trees and bushes were planted in large numbers. The lake was most ingeniously de­signed. Among the planting in the forward parts of the garden were cinquefoil pines, maples, cherries, wiste­ria, kerria and rock azaleas, most of them trees and shrubs whose season was spring. Touches of autumn, too, were scattered through the groves. In Akikonomu's garden (occupying the south-west quarter) the plantings, on hills left from the old garden, were cho­sen for rich autumn colours. Clear spring water went singing off into the distance, over rocks designed to enhance the music. There was a waterfall, and the whole expanse was like an autumn moor. Since it was now autumn, the garden was a wild profusion of au­tumn flowers and leaves, such as to shame the hills of Oi.

In the north-east quarter there was a cool natural spring and the plans had the summer sun in mind. In the forward parts of the garden the wind through thickets of Chinese bamboo would be cool in the sum­mer, and the trees were deep and mysterious as moun­tain groves. There was a hedge of mayflower, and there were oranges to remind the lady of days long gone. There were wild carnations and roses and gen­tians and a few spring and autumn flowers as well. A part of the quarter was fenced off for equestrian grounds. Since the fifth month would be its liveliest time, there were irises along the lake. On the far side were stables where the finest of horses would be kept.

And finally the north-west quarter: beyond artificial hillocks to the north were rows of warehouses, screened off by pines which would be beautiful in new falls of snow. The chrysanthemum hedge would bloom in the morning frosts of early winter, when also a grove of 'mother oaks' would display its best hues. And in among the deep groves were mountain trees which one would have been hard put to identify."

I am tempted to conclude from the above lines that the rules of cjeomancy governed not only the design of the capital and the imperial palace but even the gar­dens of the nobility, and that these, too, were inten­ded to represent a sort of mandala. an image of the universe. The four gardens described m the "Tale of Genji" attained their fullest glory in their "own" sea­son; m relation to the mam palace, each faced the di­rection to which it is assigned within the chart of the five evolutive phases. The names of the gardens, indi­cating their geographical positions, no doubt acted as a helpful means of orientation within the labyrinthine palace complex.

Wybe Kuitert has collected sufficient literary evi­dence to conclude that the idea of allocating individual gardens to specific cardinal points was not merely "lit­erary fiction but actual practice" in the design of Heian palaces."

The four seasons and their various charms are the subject of constant reference in the novels and diaries of the Heian period, and much Heian poetry is hinged on Makura kotoba, "Pillow Words" which include pro­verbial descriptions of the seasons. Daily life in the pal­aces of the nobility was similarly enacted amidst im­ages of the rhythms of nature, both outdoors in gar­dens and indoors in shiki-e, the "four seasons paint­ings' executed m the indigenous yamato style.

The palaces of the Hetan period employed a form of post-and-lintel architecture which contained very few permanent partitions and which could be opened onto the garden. Sliding screens and free-standing, movable panels were used to partition off individual areas as required. These were often decorated with scenes from nature, such as the four seasons, seasonal festivals and their locations.

Saburo lenaga summarizes this Heian immersion m nature in the following passage: "The natural was al­ways so interwoven with human life that, in point of fact, the pamtmg ended up as the depiction of recur­ring seasonal events, some religious, some not. The starting-point for events was the special connection between the unfolding of the seasons and the unfold­ing of human life."*'" The Heian period saw man as one with nature.

Mono no aware: sensitivity towards beings

The emotional - and not the intellectual or religious -attitude of the Heian nobility towards nature can be summarized in the almost untranslatable concept of mono no aware, sensitivity towards beings. According to Ivan Morris, the term aware occurs exactly 1018 times in the "Tale of Genji'V It is the great theme of Heian aesthetics. The normal rendering of this phrase as the "emotional quality of things" fails, in my opin­ion, to do justice to the true meaning of the original. "Things" have no emotion. According to Heian think­ing, however, rocks, flowers and trees are not simply inanimate objects, but possess their own "being" and their own sensitivity. To be sensitive to their sensitivity is a prerequisite of Heian art. And since the sense of the impermanence of all being was particularly pronoun­ced m the Heian period, the expression mono no aware came to acquire an undercurrent of profound melancholy.

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