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.
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
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.
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.