A primary conceit of the current age is that everything today is somehow new or original, completely different from anything of the past.
We’re in the “digital age”, and internet has changed everything. We live in democracies – everything is totally unique.
But the Heian era is proof that this is not the case. Take a simple game that was played in the Heian era, known as “Kai-Awase”. “Awase,” meaning “matchings” or “joinings.” An aristocrat would have a set of 360 pairs of clam shells, which would be painted on the inside with either images, or perhaps poetry lines.
The images on the inner shells were fairly typical themes for the era – poetry, seasonal, literary, flowers, or perhaps noblemen gently weeping by a moonlit pond. Each clam shell would have an exact replica.
The game was played in the following manner. All of the shells would be placed face down on the floor. Each player would take turns flipping over the shells and attempting to find the shell’s match. Whomever found more matches would win the game. ….sound familiar?
This is pretty much the exact same game as Memory, or Concentration, a game nearly every Kindergartner plays with regular playing cards or pieces of cardboard with pictures of cartoon animals. The rules haven’t even changed. It was played literally the exact same way over 1,100 years ago. Feel perhaps a little closer to the Heian era? You probably mastered one of their games before learning to read.
Procrastination: everyone I know seems to have this problem, or at least claims to, leading to the popularity of t-shirts and facebook groups proclaiming, “Procrastinators of the World Unite! …Tomorrow.”
When it comes to this blog, I tend to have this issue, only rather than procrastinate entirely, I have an idea or moment of inspiration, type up notes in WordPress, and then press save — the draft unfinished. As it happens, I have drafts from over a year ago, and had essentially written the posts in my head without having bothered to have published anything. It’s horrifyingly lazy (…thus quintessentially Heian?), but I’m attempting to change! We’ll see how that actually goes.
On the subject of things I’ve meant to do, it occurred to me this afternoon that I had always meant to find and purchase prints by a local Gainesville artist. I had seen her work when it was for sale at the museum store at the Harn Museum of Art at University of Florida, and had found it incredibly charming. Being a Japanophile, I had gone to see an exhibition on Kimonos from the Art Deco and Modernist period and happened to stop by the Museum Store. Given that I was moving in a few months, however, I had not purchased any prints but made a mental note to do so. After several fruitless Google searches, and an unsuccessful call to the Harn museum store for more information (in all fairness, the salesgirl I spoke to was new), I finally managed to find the artist’s name and website:
To all of those readers in the Northeast, Midwest, or any of the states currently buried in snow, bored out of your minds, and experiencing serious cabin fever, think about this: the walls in Heian homes were generally made of very thin screens, or paper, at least inside. That’s right – PAPER. Your house doesn’t seem so cold now, does it?
I realize that I have not posted in quite some time. Unfortunately, unlike my aristocratic Heian compatriots, I must actually work (?) for a living rather than living on the income of far off provincial estates I have never ever visited and could not find on a map. As a result, I have had less time to actively pursue an interest in all things Heian.
Nonetheless, Heian objects seem to find me. While waiting on line at a thrift store in my neighborhood recently, I happened to spot this particular mini-collage on the counter next to the register. I didn’t even find it while browsing – it was just there, waiting for me to take it, not having been placed there by an errant shopper off to find one last item.
The gentleman may not be wearing a black lacquer hat, and the lady’s hair does not appear to be long, but this little piece of decor is clearly in the Heian spirit. After all, they are both quite attractively pale and plump. It’s good to know that unlike some trends, standards of beauty never change.
The New York Times’ Travel Section this week has a multitude of articles about travel to Asia, and there are two articles about Kyoto alone.
Cherry Blossoms at the Heian Shrine, Kyoto.
In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon are sometimes compared to different flowering trees that bud and bloom in the spring. Reserved and contemplative as she was, Murasaki is thought of as similar to a cherry blossom, a traditional symbol of purity, while the gregarious, slightly more promiscuous Sei is likened to a vibrant red plum blossom.
A Sakura in Washington, D.C.
March is the month of the first Cherry Blossom or Sakura Festivals in Japan and in Washington, D.C. If you cannot get to Japan, the festival starts in our nation’s capital on March 27th this year. Even if you don’t particularly love cherry blossoms, there’s at least a parade with an enormous Hello Kitty balloon.
Gold on indigo-dyed paper - from the later part of the Heian period.
This illustration is from the later part of the Heian period, approximately a century after Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu lived, wrote, and gossiped about each other. Considering that Buddhist compassion and forgiveness has been in the news lately following Tiger Woods’ televised apology, which contained references to his childhood visits to Thai Buddhist temples, this particular worked seemed timely. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the Mahayana belief that Buddha’s compassion is open to all, regardless of position in life. Heian aristocrats would take comfort in such a belief, despite the fact that had a noted lack of empathy for the poor that bordered on disdain.