The world of the shining prince; court life in ancient Japan

by Ivan I. Morris

Hardcover, 1964




New York, Knopf, 1964.


The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris's widely acclaimed portrait of the ceremonious, inbred, melancholy world of ancient Japan, has been a standard in cultural studies for nearly thirty years. Using as a frame of reference The Tale of Genji and other major literary works from Japan'sHeian period, Morris recreates an era when woman set the cultural tone. Focusing on the world of the emperor's court-the world so admired by Virginia Woolf and others-he describes the politics, society, religious life, and superstitions of the times, providing detailed portrayals of the daily lifeof courtiers, the cult of beauty they espoused, and the intricate relations between the men and women of this milieu.

User reviews

LibraryThing member orchid314
A very perceptive, well-written look at the cultural life of Heian Japan, c. 900-1100 AD. This was a society obsessed with aesthetics, where the colors on the sleeve of one's kimono were minutely analyzed for the coded messages they conveyed, and where poetry was an essential element of daily life (at least among the ruling elite). Highly recommended if you're thinking about reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon or tackling Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji.… (more)
LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
Several years ago I read the entirety of The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. It was a pretty big undertaking, but absolutely worth it. I love the novel. Ever since finishing The Tale of Genji for the first time, I've been meaning to read Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The volume takes its title from the hero of The Tale of Genji who is referred to as the shining prince due to his exquisite visage and exceptional character. In many ways, The World of the Shining Prince serves as a companion to The Tale of Genji as Morris explores the historical reality of the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. The World of the Shining Prince was originally published in 1964. Beginning in 1994, later editions of the work also include an introduction by Barbara Ruch. I recently read and was rather impressed by another of Morris' works, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, and so was looking forward to reading The World of the Shining Prince even more.

In addition to the introductions, preface, appendices, bibliography, and topical index, The World of the Shining Prince examines a number of different aspects of tenth-century Japan, Heian court society, and The Tale of Genji within it ten chapters. Morris begins with a broad overview of the era in the first chapter, "The Heian Period." Though the Heian Period lasted from 782 to 1167, The World of the Shining Prince largely, but not exclusively, focuses on the 900s. The next chapter, "The Setting" looks at Heian architecture, city planning, and geography. From there Morris delves into more detailed analysis of Heian culture in the chapters "Politics and Society," "Religions," and "Superstitions." Next, attention is specifically turned to the Heian nobility and aristocracy. "The Good People and Their Lives" details day-to-day activities, amusements, and ceremonies while "The Cult of Beauty" looks at the particular aesthetics of the era. The eighth chapter, "The Women of Heian and their Relations with Men" outlines household and family structures as well as the place of romantic liaisons. The World of the Shining Prince concludes with chapters devoted to Murasaki Shikibu and to The Tale of Genji itself.

Although written more than five decades ago, The World of the Shining Prince has held up remarkably well. Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to write a completely objective cultural study--Morris' analysis is informed and influenced by his own cultural subjectivity. In the half-century since The World of the Shining Prince was written, Western thought and scholarly approaches to cultural analysis have also changed. (For example, as Ruch mentions in her introduction, views on gender politics and the relationship between religion and superstition has shifted over the years.) The World of the Shining Prince is a product of its time, but that doesn't at all diminish its value as a resource on Heian-era Japan, and more specifically on Japanese court life in the tenth century. Additionally, the volume is written with a general audience in mind. It is quite approachable, even for the average reader, and is engagingly written. Granted, the subject mater of The World of the Shining Prince is fascinating to being with.

Although Morris does provide some important general context within which he situates The World of the Shining Prince, the volume's scope is relatively narrow, concentrating on a very specific part of Heian society. However, this specificity also allows him to explore that subject from several different perspectives. Information about the Heian Period is somewhat limited, especially in regards to the lower classes, which is another reason that The World of the Shining Prince is so focused on the era's nobility. The Tale of Genji is a major source for Morris' study of the Heian-era Japan, as are other works of contemporary literature--The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon especially features prominently--as well as diaries and court records from the time period. The World of the Shining Prince is an extremely informative and absorbing work. It's more than just a companion to The Tale of Genji and reaches beyond its literary connections. The volume should appeal to anyone interested in learning more about classical Japanese history.

Experiments in Manga… (more)
LibraryThing member thierry
A very excellent and richly detailed overview of court life in Japan’s Heian period approximately from the XVIII to the XII century which can serve as a companion to and is based on two novels, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, written during the period by court ladies (who wrote in Japanese while the men were busying themselves writing in bad Chinese). This treatment of the period thoroughly portrays Court life in all its saucy and titillating details (gums blackened with charcoal to look sexy, midnight romps through the imperial compound, beatitude state and tears in response to something beautiful). Given the remoteness of the period, it is quite extraordinary that such material is available, although much of the information pertains exclusively to a restricted and elevated section of the population. I found this book to be utterly engrossing chiefly because it successfully depicts a human experience which is so foreign and removed from our own as to be barely comprehensible.… (more)
LibraryThing member bunwat
I was worried that this book was going to be a slog. The topic is a bit obscure - the aristocratic world of 10th century Japan at the time of Lady Murasaki's novel The Tale of Gengi. So some possiblity it would be one of those not terribly well written academic tomes, long on footnotes, short on readable prose, primarily concerned with scoring points in academic infighting over minutiae. You know the stuff, "Professor Walrus puts forth the absurd contention that Lord Hisagau was 5'3", ignoring the careful scholarship of Professor Carpenter who has demonstrated conclusively that he was of course 5'4"..." Feh.

Plus it was first published in 1964, which gave me some concerns about how the author was going to handle certain aspects of Heian culture particularly issues of sex - was the author going to feel the need to over explain or resort to cringe making euphemisms? But I'm really interested in Heian Japan so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I'm glad I did. There was a little bit of what I was worried about but not enough to ruin what turned out to be a fascinating and informative book. I learned a lot, and I had great fun imagining the world he was describing. For the most part he stuck with the facts and wrote very readably - only in a few places, mostly when dealing with polygamy and shamanism, did he run off the rails into trying to justify and over explain his material.

If you are interested in the world of Lady Murasaki I recommend this.
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LibraryThing member gibbon
This edition comes with an introduction by Barbara Ruch, Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture, Columbia University, and Dr Morris' former student. In it she outlines changes in the approach to the relations between men and women in academia since the book's original publication in 1964, which in her view should be taken into account when reading some of Dr Morris' comments about 10th-century upper-class Japanese life.

According to Dr Morris' Preface the book was intended for the general reader. I haven't re-read The tale of Genji in its entirety for many years (not since the Waley translation burst on me like a bombshell immediately after WW II, in fact) and I found some difficulty in distinguishing between references to the "real" characters of the Japanese court and those of the novel. As an example of a society dominated in its upper reaches by aesthetic considerations it forms a fascinating contrast with our own, though we can see a parallel in English life of the early 20th century in which a small coterie was heavily involved with Diaghilev's Russian ballet and with the painters and writers of the Bloomsbury set. The almost daily letters between the great economist Keynes and the dancer Lopokova, for instance, though decidedly unpoetic have something of the same feeling of the man of affairs putting them aside to concentrate on his feelings for her.
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