Heian literature

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Heian literature (平安文学 Heian-bungaku?) or Chūko literature (中古文学 chūko-bungaku?, literally, "mid-ancient literature") refers to Japanese literature of the Heian period. This article summarizes its history and development.


Kanshi (poetry written in Chinese) and kanbun (prose in Chinese) had remained popular since the Nara period, and the influence of the Tang poet Bai Juyi (Haku Kyoi in Japanese) on Japanese kanshi in this period was great. Even in the Tale of Genji, a pure Japanese work composed entirely in kana, particularly in the chapter "Kiritsubo", the influence of his Song of Everlasting Regret has been widely recognized. Sugawara no Michizane, who taught at the Daigaku-ryō before becoming Minister of the Right, was known not only as a politician but as a leading kanshi poet.

In 905, with the imperial order to compile the Kokinshū, the first imperial anthology, waka poetry acquired a status comparable to kanshi. Waka were composed at utaawase and other official events, and the private collections of well-known poets such as Ki no Tsurayuki (the Tsurayuki-shū) and Lady Ise (the Ise-shū) became well-known.

During this period, since the language of most official documents was Chinese, most men of the nobility used Chinese characters to write poetry and prose in Chinese, but among women the kana syllabary continued to grow in popularity, and more and more men adopted this simpler style of writing as well. Most of the works of literature from the Heian period that are still well-regarded today were written predominantly in kana. Diaries had been written by men in Chinese for some time, but in the early tenth century Ki no Tsurayuki chose to write his Tosa Nikki from the standpoint of a woman, in kana. Partly due to the Tosa Nikki's influence, diaries written in Japanese became increasingly common.

Timeline of notable works[edit]