Biwa as pantheon

In his Biwa hōshi, Hyōdō Hiromi 兵藤裕己 quotes Fukishima Junkai 福貴島順海 of Kagoshima on "the interpretation [or buddhas] of the biwa" (琵琶の釈):

The "with-many-wondrous-sounds-as-these" biwa is the five world-element prajñā body; the four strings are the four seasons [associated with Wood (Spring), Fire (Summer), Metal (Autumn), and Water (Winter)], the pick is the Earth [that makes them turn]. The voice, once plucked, reverberates across the land in all directions. The myriad buddhas and gods are present within it, making the biwa the method most beloved by the Boddhisattva "Miraculous Sound" 妙音菩薩 for paying homage to house gods.

Or does that "愛染" refer to Rāgarāja a.k.a. Aizen Myō-ō 愛染明王?

Anyway, what does he mean by "the myriad buddhas and gods are present within it"? (諸仏神のましませば — actually now that I think of it maybe that's 仏神 as in just plain buddhas, who are like unto gods.) Well, it turns out that the various parts of the biwa are associated with bits and pieces of the Buddhiverse.

Now, the head of the biwa is called Sumeru. The pegbox learns [derives?] from Satō Hachiman [?]. The daihatsu [?] is our [human] world, the four pegs are the Four Heavenly Kings,  the nut is the various buddhas of the earth, the six frets are the six forms of Kannon, the kyō no kuchi [??] is Sakyamuni...

I'm going to give up there. I think that the gist is pretty clear, I'm at a distinct loss not knowing anything more than you could find in a standard reference book about biwa construction, Kagoshima dialect, or regional/chronological variations on the "official" names of Buddhist entities.

For example, what is the daihatsu? And: "Satō Hachiman"? Really? Maybe satō is an adverbial form of satoi? Or sa is a particle? I thought that was a Tōhoku thing.


The merchants and artisans of Old Japan

So I was reading Czeslaw Milosz's Selected Poems ("Revised") and I came across one which mentioned Japan. In translation (credited to "A.M.", which apparently stands for Anthony Milosz), it goes like this:


I should relate sometime how I changed
My views on poetry, and how it came to be
That I consider myself today one of the many
Merchants and artisans of Old Japan,
Who arranged verses about cherry blossoms,
Chrysanthemums and the full moon.

If only I could describe the courtesans of Venice
As in a loggia they teased a peacock with a twig,
And out of brocade, the pearls of their belt,
Set free heavy breasts and the reddish weal
Where the buttoned dress marked the belly,
As vividly as seen by the skipper of galleons
Who landed that morning with a cargo of gold;
And if I could find for their miserable bones
In a graveyard whose gates are licked by greasy water
A word more enduring than their last-used comb

That in the rot under tombstones, alone, awaits the light,
Then I wouldn't doubt. Out of reluctant matter
What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
And so, cherry blossoms must suffice for us
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.

Google Books reveals that Milosz himself discussed this poem in a lecture entitled "A Quarrel with Classicism," collected in The Witness of Poetry. In this lecture, Milosz frames the poem as an exploration of the tension between "classicist and realistic tendencies residing in one person and struggling with each other." This contradiction, argues Milosz, "was not clearly perceived" by Renaissance poets but "resides at the very foundation of the poet's endeavor" today.

It seems to me that the poem is quite perverse. We are used to viewing Chinese and Japanese poetry as examples of a peculiar attachment to conventions. Thus the persona speaking here renounces his ambitious pursuit of reality and chooses instead cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and the full moon; those are permanent accessories of the kind of poetry that is not unlike a societal game, for it is universally practiced and assessed according to one's skill in the use of those accessories. "Merchants and artisans of Old Japan," average people who practiced poetry in their free moments, are introduced in order to stress the integral place of the versifier's craft in the habits of all society. We have here a radical renouncement of the heritage of bohemia, with its pride in the isolated and alienated poet. And yet the speaker affirms that his choice is an act of resignation, made because the achievement of certain goals was for him impossible. "If only I could," he says. Could what? Describe. Then follows a description of Venetian courtesans, which paradoxically shows us the poet achieving what, in his opinion, was beyond his power. [...]

The description of the courtesans in my poem is placed between "If only I could describe" and "Then I wouldn't doubt." And the doubt comes from the fact that matter resists amorous possession by the word, and what can be gathered out of it is "beauty at best." If I understand the persona, with whom I am identical to a certain extent, he does not have in mind the beauty contained in Nature, in views of sky, mountains, sea, sunsets, but the beauty of form in a poem or painting. He proclaims that this does not satisfy him, since it can be obtained only at the price of renouncing the truth, which would be tantamount to a perfect mimesis. Cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and the full moon are ready-made pieces serving a merchant or artisan of Old Japan to arrange beautiful forms again and again. The statement affirming that this should suffice acquires a shade of irony and in fact a declaration of disagreement with classicism.

Meanwhile, Emily Grosholz in "Milosz and the Moral Authority of Poetry" (an essay in the James McCorkle-edited Conversant essays: contemporary poets on poetry) takes a slightly different view:

What I find so attractive about the poem is the richness of nuance in the poet's depiction of the courtesans and of his relation to them. [...] Like Carpaccio, to whose painting the poem makes reference, Milosz balances the demands of aesthetic paganism and Catholic asceticism; he mourns and celebrates these women who, like him, endure their mortality even as they (paradoxically) await the light. The tense, erotic sympathy which exists between artist and human subject applies as well to Carpaccio and his original models and, no doubt, to the artisans of Old Japan who commented on human affairs when they used the convention of flower and moon.

Years of nerd training took over to provide my first instinctive reaction to all of this: indignant scorn over a relatively insignificant technical issue. Chrysanthemums aren't that prominent as a theme in Japanese poetry! You're just saying that because of Pierre Loti! There isn't a single one in the Man'yōshū! ... But, actually, it turns out that chrysanthemums weren't even introduced to Japan until the Nara period, which makes them roughly contemporaneous with the MYS (and also explains the Chinese-only name, now that I think of it; duh), and chrysanthemums do appear in later poetry collections: eleven times in the Kokin wakashū (10th century), twelve times in the Shin kokin wakashū (15th century) — that's only about half as frequent as in the Kokin wakashū, given the difference in size, but it's once more often than wisteria, for example — and by the Edo period Japan had cheerfully adopted the Chinese concept of the "four gentlemen" (四君子) of botanical aesthetics: plum, chrysanthemum, orchid, bamboo. So I suppose my first reaction is just straight-up Naracentricism. I need to unpack my invisible eboshi, for sure.

My second comment is similarly point-missing: it wasn't really "merchants and artisans" of "Old Japan" who wrote poetry like this. By the time you had merchants and artisans notably active in poetry, simply arranging flowers and moons was no longer enough. I am thinking in particular of the Edo period and the rise of haiku. Ironically, what you had here was an attempt to take the Japanese poem beyond artisan-like classicism and towards a more bohemian, realistic approach, to use Milosz's terms.

There is one big difference, though: Milosz's poem's narrator seems to believe that if he can't capture everything in a poem, then he shouldn't bother capturing anything at all. Haiku avoid this problem by capturing just one thing, leaving the galleon skippers and miserable bones for the reader to fill in (or not, as they please). Perhaps Milosz's poem can also be read as a "perfect is the enemy of the good" allegory.


Ming Popeye

What is it with Popeye and Journey to the West 西遊記? I've already documented his mercenary work for Gold Horn and Silver Horn (plus his cameo in an unrelated story also by Sugiura Shigeru 杉浦茂, and here he is again in Boku no Son Gokū ぼくの孫悟空 ("My [retelling of the tale of] Monkey") by Tezuka Osamu. Here, Monkey is in the violent rage that will eventually get him imprisoned under a mountain, and Popeye working for the Celestial Bureaucracy that provoked him into it.

Wordy guy, Ming Popeye. Elsewhere, he says "Bah! He's hiding in the surroundings!" Also "Arf arf!"

This was originally published in 1953 and you have to wonder how much of this English its readership were expected to understand. Most of the kids reading this would have no memories of the time when Japan wasn't awash with US culture. Some might conceivably have practiced their English on the occupying forces.

And note that this isn't some freaky experimental thing: this is Tezuka Osamu. I don't think that a mainstream comic book artist would even be able to slip this much untranslated English past their editor these days. The closest example I can think of is Muromi-san talking to a bear in psychic English one time.



In this post last year talked about honorary imperial titles given to (or claimed by) people who weren't actually emperors. Today I am going to write about something at the other end of the scale: the word 廃帝, haitei (or fèidì in Chinese, the original source), which refers to a deposed ex-emperor. As you might expect, it is not a polite term: one translation of the characters would be "discarded/abandoned emperor," using the same 廃 as you see in words like haikyo 廃墟 "ruins".

The first weird thing about this word is that, to judge from Wikipedia, English-language Chinese historiographers translate it "Emperor Fei," treating the "Deposed" part as if it were actually a name rather than a title or descriptor. Maybe this reflects how things were done in the original Chinese sources: once you were deposed, your official name was changed to Deposed, and that's how people referred to you. Or, it might just be a weird style quirk introduced by some 19th-century European scholar who didn't quite understand what he was translating. Or maybe it's a descriptor like "Emperor regnant"? Anyone know?

The Japanese wikipedia page lists some haitei for Vietnam, Korea, and Japan as well as China — although note that both of the Japanese examples, now Emperor Junnin and Emperor Chūkyō (previously known as "Awaji Haitei" and "Kujō Haitei" respectively), were relieved of their shameful haitei status by the Meiji government in 1870 as part of the general imperial history sprucing-up of that time.

(Another interesting point: Emperor Chūkyō was also known as the "latter Haitei", the "former" being Emperor Junnin. Even though they were separated by 500 years, "former" and "latter" makes sense in Japan because the imperial lineage is understood as one long-lived house fending off pretenders rather than several competing houses jostling for the top.)

Today, the best-known haitei is probably Pǔ yí 溥儀, last emperor of the Qing dynasty and therefore of China (later notoriously called back into service as figurehead for Japan's puppet state in Manchukuo). Interestingly, the designation of Pǔ yí as a haitei was (according to Wikipedia) a revolutionary thang; those sympathetic to the old order preferred the face-saving sontei (xùndì) 遜帝, "abdicated emperor" (e.g.).

Related terms: shōtei 小帝, "little emperor" or "Emperor Shao", for emperors deposed or killed at a very young age (think pre-teens), and matsutei 末帝, "last emperor" or "Emperor Mò[dì]", for emperors who were the last in their line before their holdings were taken over by another imperial line. (Pǔ yí gets this one sometimes too.)


A cromulent interlude

A poem about the sangha from the Wakan rōeishū (和漢朗詠集), by Minamoto no Shitagō (源順):


Devouts who contemplate the void strive to bemoon their hearts;
Senior monks of greater years must shave frost from their heads.


Two sneers for writing

Two more verses from Ikkyū, this time on the theme "Two sneers for writing" (嘲文章 二首):


Man is as foolish as a beast, as an ox or a horse;
Literature is a contrivance of Hell.
The woe of pride, vanity, and obstinacy:
How lamentable! The devil draws nearer and nearer.

A poetic masterpiece, a gold-and-jade voice:
Word by word, line by line, all the audience is stunned—
But when has Yama ever shown leniency to those who can turn a phrase sublime?
The iron rod! Fear the demon's gaze!

I like how Ikkyū carefully doesn't say that writing actually causes pride, vanity and obstinacy. As a prolific poet himself, he surely knew it was the other way around.

Pic related; it's a writer Jigoku Dayū (by Yoshitoshi).