Sunday, January 03, 2016

Plum blossom on snow

A friend in Japan normally posts photographs of deep snow around now, although not this year.  Interestingly, heavy snow does not appear in the classical literature of Japan.  This partly reflects the fact that the climate of Nara and Kyoto is relatively mild.  It was only later, with writers like Issa, who came from Shinano, north of the old capitals, that the experience of severe winters enters poetry.  Another reason, as Haruo Shirane explains in his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, was that literature idealised nature, so that the unpleasant extremes of summer and winter were avoided in favour of spring and autumn imagery (it also gives a misleading impression of landscape, since writers of poetry rarely ventured beyond their gardens into farmland or wilderness).  The early Man'yōshūi anthology included 785 seasonal poems written in the first half of the eight century but only 67 of these concerned winter.  This pattern continued: winter poems are the least numerous of the four seasons' in each of the first six Imperial Waka Anthologies, beginning with the Kokinshū, compiled around 905 by four court poets led by Ki no Tsurayuki.

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The winter book of the Kokinshū begins at the turn of the season with a sight synonymous with autumn: bright leaves at Tatsuta River.  There follows a set of snow poems evoking feelings of coldness and loneliness, and then four poems about plum blossom on snow.  The sequence ends with the year's end, snow having given way to blossom.  Autumn and spring had many more nature topics associated with them: in spring for example, in addition to lingering snow and plum blossoms, there were mist, bush warblers, returning wild geese, green willow, yellow kerria, new herbs, wisteria and, of course, cherry blossoms.  But, as Shirane explains, winter became more popular in the late Heian and Kamakura periods, where we find poems on waterfowl like the plover, mallard and mandarin duck, which was 'thought to sleep on water so cold that frost and ice formed on its feathers.'  The plover originally became associated with winter when it was mentioned in a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, crying in the cold river wind as the poet searched for his love.  By the time of eighth Imperial Anthology, the Shin Kokinshū (1205), there were almost as many winter poems as spring poems and the light of the winter moon was being celebrated for its cold purity, in contrast with the world below.

Sesshū Tōyō, Landscape of Four Seasons: Winter, 15th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Winter topics, Shirane explains, 'constructed a monochrome landscape
 that shares much with Muromachi ink painting', 
an art form of which Sesshū was the greatest exponent.

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