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The Courtly World: Sei Shōnagon and Lady Murasaki: Heian period overview

This is a research guide for Anna Maria Hong's course The Courtly World: Sei Shōnagon and Lady Murasaki (LIT2379.01)


Brief Overview

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica

Heian period, in Japanese history, the period between 794 and 1185, named for the location of the imperial capital, which was moved from Nara to Heian-kyō (Kyōto) in 794.

The Chinese pattern of centralized government that was first adopted in the Nara period (710–784) gradually changed as the growth of private estates (shōen), exempt from taxation, encroached upon the public domain and reduced the substance of state administration. From the mid-9th century the court was dominated by members of the Fujiwara family, who controlled the imperial line as regents by marrying their daughters to imperial heirs. Their influence reached its peak under Fujiwara Michinaga, who dominated the court from 995 to 1027, but then declined as a succession of non-Fujiwara emperors came to power. A new centre of authority emerged in 1086 when Emperor Shirakawa retired early and established a cloistered regime (insei) to rule behind the throne, a system continued sporadically by later emperors.

The period was characterized by the flourishing culture of the court aristocracy, which actively engaged in the pursuit of aesthetic refinement, leading to new developments in art and literature. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel, The Tale of Genji, is a brilliant record of life among the nobility and is considered one of the great works of world literature. In religion the esoteric sects of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism practiced formalistic rites that paralleled elaborate court ritual. The doctrines of the True Pure Land sect, emphasizing simple faith in Buddha Amida, also grew in popularity. These doctrines offered solace to the populace during the social upheaval that occurred in the late Heian period, which was marked by local disturbances and armed struggle among provincial military bands. This strife reached the capital itself in 1156, when warriors of the Taira and Minamoto clans backed rival claimants to the throne. The Taira were victorious, and they maintained tenuous control over the court until 1185.

Shinto Figure: Standing Man in Heian Dress. Color and gold on silk. Kamakura period. Seattle Art Museum. Source: Artstor


Source: Research Starters, Heian period

Date 794-1185

Locale Central Japan

During the Heian period, Japan experienced a golden age of literature, philosophy, and religion in which it developed a unique culture and sense of national identity.

Key Figures

  • Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1028), noble who was the most successful head of the Fujiwara clan
  • Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-c. 1030), noblewoman who wrote The Tale of Genji
  • Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai; 774-835), powerful Buddhist monk

Summary of Event

Much of early Japanese culture was influenced by the intellectual systems of China. This cultural diffusion reached a high point during the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907). Once the Tang solidified their power on the mainland, they launched a series of military expeditions against Korea and Vietnam. Tang foreign policy was based on the Confucian principle of superior/subordinate relationships and the belief that China was truly the Middle Kingdom at the center of the earth. Thus, the Tang Dynasty established a tributary relationship with the governments in Korea and Vietnam. This international system was based on the model of hierarchy, obedience, and discipline. The Tang emperor was at the top of the power pyramid, and every other official paid tribute to his rank.

In time, Confucianism and Buddhism established themselves on the Korean peninsula. The aristocratic and intellectual elite of Korea were attracted to Confucian philosophy and its ethical code of conduct. At the same time, much of Korean society was also influenced by the Buddhist belief in personal salvation based on people’s conduct during their lifetimes. Korean intellectuals would travel to China and study at Confucian academies or Buddhist temples. On their return to the peninsula, they would establish schools modeled on the academies found in China. In time, these belief systems reached Japan from Korea; throughout history, the Korean peninsula has served as a cultural, political, and military “bridge” connecting mainland East Asia to Japan. Most historians believe that the Korean-Japanese connection was first established in the fourth or fifth century when the Korean military launched a series of expeditions in an attempt to conquer the Japanese mainland. Under the leadership of the Korean emperor, Silla, Chinese culture was introduced to the Japanese people.

In 710, the Japanese officials instituted a series of political policies that brought much of Japan under the control of a central government; this marks the beginning of what historians refer to as the Nara period (710-794). A new universal legal code was adopted that placed everyone in a Confucian hierarchy and established a set of legal procedures that would have a significant impact on the development of Japanese society. This code both established a well-ordered civil society and accelerated economic growth by making Japanese society a much safer place to conduct commerce.

The leaders of the new government also realized that they needed to create a historical narrative that would act as a societal adhesive to connect the different regions of Japan to a common heritage. The Nara government instituted a series of historical and literary projects that would form the foundation of a Japanese cultural heritage. In the area of historical writing, scholars produced three important works. The first work, a collection of the most ancient Japanese myths, legends, and folk tales, is the Kojiki (712 c.e.; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883; best known as Kojiki). This was followed by the Nihon shoki (compiled 720 c.e.; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896; best known as Nihon shoki), which attempted to give an accurate account of early Japanese history. Finally, in 713, these same scholars began compiling the Fudoki (Records of Wind and Earth , 1997; best known as Fudoki), a collection of provincial histories. This was the first Japanese attempt to bring provincial history, geography, and folklore to a national audience.

The government followed these publications with two literary anthologies. The first, the Manyōshū (c. 750; Manyōshū , 1929-1964; also known as The Ten Thousand Leaves, 1981), contains the first collection of Japanese poetry. This anthology included works from unknown authors, government officials, and even former emperors. The last major work of the Nara period was the Kokin wakashū (c. 905; also known as Kokinshū; English translation, 1970), a poetry anthology of old and new poems specifically commissioned by the emperor. Its creation that firmly established government support of the arts.

The intellectual elite of the Nara period also adopted many of the concepts of Confucianism and Buddhism, drawn, like the Korean intellectuals, largely because of the concept of individual ethical accountability. Despite the widespread acceptance of Confucianism and Buddhism, many Japanese intellectuals still embraced their native Shintō , a religion based on an animistic view of nature. Japan at this time was still very much a rural nation, and the concept of a spiritual connection with the natural environment still played a major role in Japanese culture.

By the late 790’s, the aristocratic class began a series of bloody uprisings in an attempt to gain control of the government. To quell this violence, the capital was transferred to Heian-kyō (near modern-day Kyoto) in 794; it was during this period that the Fujiwara family came to power. Thus began the second great period of classical Japanese culture, known as the Heian period (794-1185).

The Fujiwara clan established a feudal economic and political model based on the operation of self-sufficient agricultural estates known as the shōen system. Through a series of strategic marriages, Fujiwara women became the brides of the heirs of the most powerful shōen estates; thus, the clan was able to establish itself as the most powerful force in Japanese politics for three centuries. The most successful practitioner of the concept of strategic marriage was Fujiwara Michinaga, who had four of his daughters married to members of the royal family.

During the Heian period, Japan began to develop its distinct culture and identity, which incorporated some Chinese concepts and practices but were removed from those of Tang China. The two areas of Japanese intellectual life that most significantly reflect these phenomena were the development of Japanese literature and the growth of Buddhism.

The eleventh century was the start of a golden age in Japanese literature, and aristocratic women played a primary role in the development of this art form. The most notable of these female authors was Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote a fifty-four-chapter masterpiece known as Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933). Like many works of literature in Europe during this time period, The Tale of Genji reflects the social mores of contemporary aristocratic society. Many fathers from the nobility encouraged their daughters to become well educated. If one’s daughter aspired to become a member of the royal court, she had to be conversant in both Chinese and Japanese literature. Minor aristocrats also used their attractive, well-educated daughters to elevate their family’s social status by marrying them into the most powerful of Japan’s noble families.

Buddhism played a central role in Japanese life during the Heian period. One of the major factors in the rise of Buddhism was its close connection to the spiritual beliefs of Japan’s nature-based religion, Shintō, because both belief systems sought a harmony between the forces of society and those of nature. Buddhist monks constructed great monasteries throughout the country, especially around the capital. The monks who occupied these great complexes were among the best-educated members of Japanese society, and over time, these Buddhist priests became very active in Japanese society. One of the most important of the Buddhist intellectuals was Kōbō Daishi. His ideas on the importance of developing an esoteric lifestyle had a deep and lasting impact on the development of Japanese music, art, literature, and poetry.

The decline of Heian Japan was the result of the chaotic conditions brought about by the failure of the nation’s agriculture system and the great social unrest resulting from the accumulation of most of the fertile farmland by a few prominent clans of aristocrats. Two of the most powerful of these families were the Taira and Minamoto. These two noble families began a series of bloody wars in an attempt to gain control of the government. These wars of conquest were fought by a new segment of Japanese society known as samurai. These professional warriors created so much carnage that Japan slipped into a state of civil war, and the resulting chaos brought an end to the Heian Era.


Japan emerged from this classical golden age with a unique culture and strong sense of national identity. Japan’s rejection of Chinese cultural supremacy would eventually allow it to become the dominant force in East Asia, and this would be especially true in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unlike China, where Confucian conservatism blocked any acceptance of Western technology and prevented rapid modernization, Japan had a strong sense of nationhood that allowed it to incorporate selected aspects of Western technology and culture. During the Meiji Restoration of 1867, Japanese scholar-officials created a model in which the basic tenets of Japanese culture were preserved at the same time that the nation was embracing Western science and technology.