Theses Doctoral

Of Poetry, Patronage, and Politics: From Saga to Michizane, Sinitic Poetry in the Early Heian Court

Reeves, Kristopher Lee

This dissertation seeks to explore possible relationships between literature—poetry, in particular—and royal patronage. More specifically, I am here interested in examining the remarkable efflorescence of Sinitic poetry (kanshi) during the reign of Emperor Saga (786-842, r. 809-823), as well as some of its later developments in the private poetry collections of Shimada Tadaomi (828-891) and his pupil Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). The history of Sinitic poetry composed in Japan has been meticulously studied; there is certainly no dearth of research, either in Japanese or in English. Even so, the early ninth century remains somewhat of a mystery. A total of three imperially commissioned anthologies (chokusenshū) of Sinitic poetry and prose were compiled during this time, along with an imperial history—all of which were the direct product of Saga’s personal patronage. Much of his own poetry has been preserved in these anthologies. Despite the existence of hundreds of Sinitic poems, and a contemporary history (also in Sinitic), scholars tend to shy away from this period. This dissertation is an attempt to remedy that situation.
As a means of facilitating a broader appreciation of Saga, I have included some material on King Alfred the Great (849-899, r. 871-899), the most well-known Anglo-Saxon king, and oft-celebrated father of the English nation, who was a near contemporary of Saga. Naturally, I have also interwoven some material on Emperor Taizong (598-649, r. 626-649) of the Tang dynasty, whose influence on ninth-century Sinitic poetry (in Japan) has been the focus of some past research. Scholars of East Asian literature, whether they specialize in Chinese or Japanese literature, are familiar with the grand literary and political legacy of this continental sovereign. Both Saga’s poetry as well as his ideal of sovereignty were influenced by the work of Taizong and his lettered vassals.
A central assumption informs this work: ninth-century poetry was inevitably political, insofar as it served as a tool whereby authors could enforce or manipulate prevalent power relations within the court. Poetry, therefore, was both dominated by and exercised significant influence over hierarchical networks of patronage. Poetry was also occasional performative, that is, it was recited aloud on public occasions—royal banquets or excursions—before an audience of vassals and courtiers. Saga, as supreme ruler and patron, composed poetry that sought, through its presentation at these banquets, to repeatedly legitimate his own position, while simultaneously appealing to a number of different audiences. Different audiences harbored different expectations, and Saga, adroit politician that he was, strove to please each in turn by adopting a number of poetic voices or personae. This is especially evident after his retirement, when he found it necessary to adopt a different poetic persona more appropriate to his less prominent station. Tadaomi and Michizane, as recognized scholars, loyal vassals, and influential statesmen, received patronage from both sovereigns and high-ranking noblemen. These complex networks of patronage and varied audiences demanded the creation of ever more subtle poetic personae. This dissertation, among other things, is an exploration of how poets of the ninth century adopted different poetic personae in accordance with their intended audiences. The deliberate mixing of various Sinitic genres to achieve this end receives a great deal of attention.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Reeves_columbia_0054D_14490.pdf Reeves_columbia_0054D_14490.pdf application/pdf 5.47 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 6, 2018