Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mount TBR #10

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

History of Japan to 1334 – George Sansom

This book covers lightly the Asuka period (538 to 710), a period marked by cultural and technological influence from Tang China. But the main topics are the Nara period (710 – 794), the Heian period (794 - 1192), and the Kamakura period (1192 - 1333). The Nara period saw the assimilation of Buddhism and things Chinese such as a writing system, Confucianism, Taoism, codification of laws and bureaucracy. The Heian period was an age of cultural flourishing, at least for a narrow group of people, with Tale of Genji being the monument to the era. The Kamakura period saw the warriors pushing aside civilian control to introduce feudalism.

Sansom fulfills his goal of providing an overview useful to both historians and the interested lay public. Born in 1883 and educated France and Germany, in 1903 he entered the British diplomatic service. He was sent to Japan where he learned the language to the point where by 1911 he was able to translate texts from the Kamakura era. Declared physically unfit for the trenches, he put in Great War service by acting as a spy in Russia, espionage being right up the alley of smart people with languages. In the Twenties, he returned to Japan, following a long tradition of diplomats who were also top-flight scholars. In 1928, he published An Historical Grammar of Japanese. In 1931, he released the masterpiece Japan: A Short Cultural History, called “the finest work in Western languages on Japanese civilization” in The Journal of Asian Studies in Sir George’s 1965 obituary

The ambitious purpose of this book is to provide an examination of social, political, and cultural changes. He uses primary and secondary sources expertly, providing illuminating quotations. The quotations make important points and are not without humor. From the Admonitions of Fujiwara no Morosuke (909 – 960), this shows how deeply the Japanese were influenced by the Chinese conception of auspicious days to do everything: “Comb your hair once every three days, not every day. Cut your fingernails on a day of the Ox, your toenails on a day of the Tiger. If the day is auspicious, now bathe, but only once every fifth day.”

Sansom wrote terse, lucid and beautiful prose. Note what Somerset Maugham called concision in the observation on Murasaki Shikibu’s world "The prevalent mood . . . was one of sentimentality, or at best of sensibility, and not of anxious speculation about good and evil and the nature of being." I was intellectually relieved that he kept at a minimum material on conspiracy and intrigue and machinations among rival clans. I get lost in the thickets of who is allied with whom, though I know some readers of history revel in such information.

I read this book in preparation for tackling Tale of Genji later this year. I feel while it is imperative to approach a masterwork on my knees, having background knowledge is essential for me to be able to look Murasaki Shikibu in the eye as another human being, though far away in time and space, dealing with the desires, aversions, pains, and pleasures entailed in dealing with other people.

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