Category Archives: romance

Rebuff Unwanted Advances Delicately

As we’ve previously seen, Heian-era aristocrats used poetry to communicate in most areas of life.  One major advantage of poetic communication is that one could be indirect and discreet while still conveying a strong message.  Murasaki Shikibu, author of “The Tale of Genji”, was a lady-in-waiting to Emperor Ichijo’s young consort, Akiko, daughter of Michinaga Fujiwara.

Michinaga had initially selected Murasaki for his young daughter’s entourage. She was known for her cleverness, as the court of Heian Kyo found “Genji” to be fascinating, and she appears to have been a sort of tutor for Akiko as well. Michinaga was interested in having such a refined, imaginative woman influence his young daughter, who would hopefully be the mother of a future emperor.

He was interested in other aspects of Murasaki as well. Known as a lecherous man, Michinaga certainly attempted to enter Murasaki’s room on at least one occasion. Murasaki heard him knocking on the door outside of her room, and lay quietly, ignoring him. The next day, as was custom, Michinaga sent a poem:

How sad for him who stands the whole night long

A flightless Kuina bird.

Knocking on your cedar door

Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the Kuina bird

As was also the custom, Murasaki sent a poem in reply that used the same poetic allusions as the initial poem:

Sadder for her who had answered the Kuina’s tap,

For it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door.

Could one rebuff unwanted advances in such a refined manner today?


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Filed under Michinaga, Murasaki Shikibu, poetry, romance

An Ideal Heian Gentleman, Part II

The Heian world had strict codes of behavior everyone kept to, and this was true of romantic entanglements as well. The result of this was that there was no sitting around each day by the door waiting for the messenger’s arrival (the equivalent of waiting by the phone in Heian times) to see if a man were interested in you, or wanted to keep an affair going.

Instead, an ideal Heian gentleman would visit at night, and then take his leave in the early morning. Rather than saying something along the lines of “that was cool, babe, but I have to bounce before your parents find me,” the proper Heian gentleman would use a standard euphemism to announce his leave. Since it would be early morning, the grass would be covered with dew, and the fine gentleman would express a strong desire to see that dew. This would mean he’d have to go. One could then protest, and he’d say the “dew calls me”, or something along those lines.

Once the gentleman had arrived home, he was to immediately sit down, produce a standard three line poem, and send it with a symbolic flower or twig (symbolic of his feelings, whatever they may have been) to the lady he had just visited. If not, his interest in the affair was over. No poem = it’s over.

While seemingly an arcane ritual, this standard of conduct could be imitated today, as women would at least know where they stood. In fact, it would work for anyone. Demand a poem. Tell whomever you’re dating or living with that you’ll require a poem every time they leave to make sure they’re coming back. If they complain, start sending poems to their friends. They’ll take the hint.

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Filed under gentlemen, poetry, romance

Call off an Engagement Due to Poor Penmanship

In Heian Japan, it happened all the time. One might decide to marry a woman, and eagerly anticipate a love poem from her in reply only to see….her wretched calligraphy. The wedding was off!

The next time a doctor writes you an illegible prescription, laugh in their face. “That simply won’t do,” you’ll chuckle, ripping the prescription in half. “Try it again, or I’ll take my business elsewhere.” I think they’ll get the message.

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Filed under calligraphy, romance