Japan in the Heian Period and Cultural History Crash Course World History 227
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World Historyand today we’re going to return to medieval times. Mr. Green? Mr. Green? Finally, we get to watchjousting and eat with our hands and root for the Blue Knight. Yeah, No, Me from the Past, for starters,Medieval Times doesn’t closely reflect Europe in medieval times. And furthermore, we’renot going to be talking about Europe in medieval times, although we will be talking about kingsand courts and aristocratic intrigue, but we’re gonna be talking about all those thingsin Japan. So discussions of Japanese history often focuson the Tokugawa period because it’s got ninja
and samurai, but much of the foundation ofJapanese culture dates to the Heian period between 782 and 1167 CE. And when I say Japanese culture, I do meanculture, because the achievements of the Heian period were primarily artistic, especiallyin literature. So for most of this episode, we’ll be looking at cultural history as opposedto like economic or political history. As a novelist, and also a consumer of culture,I’m a big fan of cultural history. What I love about it is that it embraces the humanimagination. I mean, you can’t just make up economic theories. Just kidding, you can.
Anyway, for our purposes, Heian culture isthe high culture of the upperupperclass aristocracy, and obviously focusing on thistiny sliver of the upper class leaves out the experience of most Japanese people. Butwe know a lot more about the elite than we know about everyone else because it was theelite who were doing all of the writing things down and they were writing about the peoplethey found the most interesting themselves. In fact one of the reasons we know a greatdeal about the Heian aristocracy is because of Japan’s first great novel: The Tale ofthe Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Now the historian James Murdoch called the Heian aristocracy
quot;An everpullulating brood of greedy, needy,frivolous dilletanti as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapableof any worthy achievementquot;. But when you boil all the unnecessarily fancywords out of that quote, that sounds like people I’m very interested in learning about.In fact, I love some fallicentuousness. So one of the first things we learn from textsabout the Heian aristocracy is that the aristocracy was dominated by a craze for things Chinese.Now Chinese visitors to Japan thought the country was backwards and out of the way anduncivilized. But one of the reasons the Japanese seemedbackwards to Chinese visitors is that the
Japanese in the 10th century admired TangChina, which had flourished a couple of hundred years earlier. But there was also the factthat the Japanese blended Chinese ideas, especially Chinese Buddhism, with native traditions. In fact one of the most interesting aspectsof Heian Japan was the overall attitude of the aristocracy, which was characterized bya love of color, and grandeur, and ceremony, and ritual, that was tinged with some Buddhistinspiredideas. You know, it’s sort of like how everyone in Canada wears powdered wigs and knee breechesto look like 18th century England. And one of the central ideas in Buddhism isthat everything beautiful, and also everything
not beautiful, is fleeting. Like historianIvan Morris wrote that in the literature of the time, there was a quote quot;feeling thatthe familiar order of things will soon come to an end.quot; Which by the way is always anappropriate feeling. So the center of aristocratic court life wasthe capital, Heian Jyo, which during the Heian golden age may have had a populations as highas 100,000 people, making it much larger than most European cities at the time. It may havebeen a glorious capital but we don’t really know because most of the city was destroyedby earthquakes, or possibly fires, or possibly wars, or just the desire for new construction.We’re not sure.