Theses Doctoral

Primers, Commentaries, and Kanbun Literacy in Japanese Literary Culture, 950-1250CE

Guest, Jennifer Lindsay

This project seeks a new perspective on issues of literacy, literary language, and cultural contact in the literature of premodern Japan by examining the primers used to study Chinese-style literature in the Heian and early medieval periods (c. 900-1250CE). Much of Heian literary production was centered on kanbun: "Chinese-style" writing that resembled classical Chinese and mobilized allusive connections to classical Chinese texts, but was usually read based on classical Japanese vocabulary and syntax. The knowledge gleaned from introductory kanbun education forms an important and little-researched common thread linking readers and writers from a wide range of backgrounds - from male and female courtiers to specialized university scholars to medieval monks and warriors eager to appropriate court culture. While tracing the roles of commonly-studied kanbun primers and commentaries in shaping Heian literary culture and its medieval reception, I consider key aspects of premodern Japan literacy - from the art of kundoku ("gloss-reading") to the systems of knowledge involved in textual commentary and the adaptation of kanbun material. Examining the educational foundations of premodern Japanese literary culture demonstrates that kanbun and other literary styles functioned as closely entangled modes of literacy rather than as native and foreign languages, and that certain elements of classical Chinese knowledge formed a valued set of raw material for literary creativity. Chapter 1 outlines the diversity of premodern Japanese literacy and the key primers and encyclopedic reference works involved in kanbun education. Chapter 2 focuses on a primer for learning written characters, the Thousand Character Classic (Qian zi wen), discussing its varied reception in the contexts of calligraphy practice, oral recitation, and commentarial authority and offering translations from the tongue-in-cheek literary showpiece Thousand Character Classic Continued (Zoku Senjimon, 1132). In Chapter 3, I examine the role of kanbun knowledge in Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book (Makura no soshi, early 11th century), which foregrounds the social and creative roles of introductory kanbun material as a vocabulary of conversational quotation among both men and women. Chapter 4 turns to Condensed Meaning of the New Ballads (Shin gafu ryakui, 1172), a ground-breaking anecdotal commentary on Bai Juyi's poetry, to discuss the way that kanbun texts were interpreted and reinvented through commentary. Chapter 5 discusses an innovative poetic adaptation of a kanbun primer, Waka Poems on the Child's Treasury (Mogyu waka, 1204), which makes use of poetic topics and historical anecdotes as effective ways of organizing kanbun knowledge and also suggest the potential for introductory education to spark literary creativity across genre boundaries. I conclude with a brief look at the relevance of premodern Japanese kanbun education for broader questions about literary language and for comparisons involving other transregional classical languages like Latin. By illustrating the processes by which elements of Chinese literary culture were adopted and adapted throughout East Asia, this project provides fertile ground for exploring issues of literacy and cultural interaction that underlie all forms of literature.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lurie, David B.
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013