A look at Lady Murasaki’s Diary, part 3: fashion and poetry

This is the third post covering life in the aristocratic Heian Court in early Japan through the Diary of Lady Murasaki. the previous two posts covered history and religion, but this one covers Court Life itself particularly with regard to fashion, romance and poetry. The Nara and Heian Period are still seen as a kind of a Golden Age in Japan and the influences from this long-gone era can still be found today.

The fashion of the Court was quite a bit different than what we think of today, especially for women. The fashion of men eventually was adopted by the lower samurai class and even to people of today. The fashion of women of the Court was something only the most wealthy and prestigious could maintain.

Genji emaki 01003 003.jpg
By Imperial Palace Kyoto – http://www.gotoh-museum.or.jp/collection/index.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3596315

Women of the time are famous for their complex, multiple-layered robes called jūnihitoe (十二単衣), quite different than today’s kimono. Also, in contrast to Chinese fashion of the time where women’s hair was short and tied in a bun, women of the Heian Court wore their hair very long and almost seldom cut it.

Fashion and the colors allowed for womens’ robes were strongly dictated by rank, season and the latest tastes from Tang Dynasty China, and later reaction to them. A women who dressed well for an occasion drew admiration from all sides while a woman who choose poorly or exceeded her rank could face ruin. Noble women of the time were under enormous pressure to keep up and outperform their rivals. In Lady Murasaki’s diary, she expends many words detailing what other women wore that day:

That day all the women had done their utmost to dress well, but as luck would have it, two of them showed a want of taste when it came to the colour combination at their sleeves, and as they served the food they came into full of the nobles and senior courtiers. Later, it seemed that Lady Saishō and the others has been mortified; but it was not such a terrible mistake – it was just that the combinations were rather uninspiring. Kodayū had worn an unlined crimson dress with robes of five layers in differing shades of crimson with purple linings. Her jacket was white lined with deep red. It seems that Genshikibu had worn robes of deep crimson lined with purple and a damask mantle of crimson lined again with purple. Was it because her jacket was not of figured silk? [which was forbidden to a woman of her rank anyway] But that would be ridiculous. The slightest mistake in a formal setting should indeed be the subject of censure, but there is no sense in criticizing the material itself. (pg. 65)

This passage shows just how many social rules at the time revolved around women and fashion at the time, even to the degree that women were expected to compliment one another. The ‘forbidden colors’ were social rules governing which colors and patterns women of higher-rank were allowed to wear, but were off-limits to women of lower rank, and these rules changed and shifted depending on the season, or by other factors.

Propriety in formal situations was critical among the aristocracy of the time, but in their off-hours, women were given a lot of latitude in their personal lives to pursue romance and literature, among other things. As Lady Murasaki writes:

No matter how amorous or passionate you [a lady of the court] may be, as long as you are straightforward and refrain from causing others embarrassment, no one will mind. (pg. 56)

One of the most common ways by far for women and men of the Court to exchange affection was through poetry. In fact, besides fashion, poetry was the other way someone could gain a great reputation in the Court, or ruin themselves in the process. Poetry of the Heian Court was deeply influenced by Tang Dynasty poets of the day, including such famous poets as Meng Haoran and Bo Juyi (Po Chü-i), and use obscure poetic references that are very hard to understand today. In one incident, she is attending a banquet to celebrate a recent game of go between two members of the Court, and she notices someone wrote a poem on the banquet’s centerpiece:

Picked up from the Shihara sands of Ki, they say,
May these pebbles grow to mighty rocks!

Which the translator states is an allusion to victory (pebbles become rocks), but then Lady Murasaki make an obscure comment immediately after.

The women had the most beautiful fans on that occasion.

The translator believes she was making a witty comment in reference to a previous game of Go in 973 (35 years before composition of the diary!) where lovely fans were given out as prizes. Such is the subtle wit of the people of the Court that day.

People in the Court would also frequently test one another with a poem made up on the spot, eager to see how the other would reply. In one situation, Lady Murasaki was put on the spot by her lord, Fujiwara no Michinaga:

We hid behind the dais, but His Excllency pulled back the curtains and we were both caught.

“A poem each for the Prince [Michinaga’s newborn grandson, later Emperor Go-Ichijō]!” he cried. “Then I’ll let you go!”

Being in such a quandry, I recited:

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Even in his inebriated state, his mind was still on the future of the Prince. (pg. 32)

Or again when he unexpectedly drops in at her apartments she composes a poem on the fly:

Now I see the colour of this maiden-flower in bloom,
I know how much the dew discriminates against me.

“Quick, aren’t we!” says he with a smile and asks for my brush:

It is not the dew that chooses where to fall:
Does not the flower choose the colour that it desires?
(pg 4)

The translator states that Lord Michinaga was asking in his reply whether Lady Murasaki meant praise or blame in her poem. Pretty subtle.

The women of the Court also expressed their deep friendship with one another the same way. In one entry, Lady Muraski writes a message to her close friend Lady Dainagon:

I sent her the following:

How I long for those waters on which we lay,
A longing keener than the frost on a duck’s wing.

To which she replied:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost,
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.
(pg. 34-35)

The translator points out the metaphor of mandarin ducks who mate for life, but clarifies that in this context refers to two close friends, nothing romantic, since it had become a common metaphor by that era.

So, that’s a look at life in the ancient Heian Court in Japan. The Court is long gone, but its artistic and cultural legacy remains in the hearts and minds of people today. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Lady Murasaki’s Diary as it is a very short, but interesting read, and is still one of the best views into this long-gone world. 🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “A look at Lady Murasaki’s Diary, part 3: fashion and poetry”

  1. Very nice, thank you!
    I find it interesting in the diaries that Lady Murasaki has a contempt for the ladies of the court. I question the overall feel of the courts, were there many who felt as Lady Murasaki or were most of the women obsessed with their standing in court?


  2. Hi Laura, and welcome to the JLR! I read Sei Shonagon’s book too, the Pillow Book, which I will post about in a week or so. There, I get the same feeling of cattiness among ladies of the Court. At the end of the day, it was a closed, small world, and little things would become reasons for feuds before long. :p


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