Hey, I found another good item for my "Meiji writers complain about traditional Japanese literature" collection. This one is from part II of Yosano "Tekkan" Hiroshi 与謝野寛/鐵幹's 1894 The nation's death-knell: A denunciation of the unmanly waka of the contemporary age (亡国の音 現代の非丈夫的和歌を罵る):


There are proponents for the abolition of prostitution; there are proponents for the prohibition of alcohol. Why have we not yet seen a single advocate for the boycotting of contemporary waka?

In retrospect it seems bizarre to advocate, even tongue-in-cheek, for an official ban on a poetic form. But one must remember that 1894 was decades before the US would enact its ill-advised constitutional amendment prohibiting the limerick; Tekkan had no way of foreseeing the resultant explosion in crime and tourism to Nantucket, no matter how inevitable an outcome it seems to us in the modern age.

The title, 亡国の音, is actually a classical reference, specifically to the Record of music 樂記:

聲音之道、與政通矣 [...] 鄭衛之音、亂世之音也。比於慢矣。桑間濮上之音、亡國之音也。

There is an interaction between the words and [musical] airs (of the people) and the character of their government. ... The airs of Kang and Wei were those of an age of disorder, showing that those states were near such an abandoned condition. The airs near the river Pû, at the mulberry forest, were those of a state going to ruin. (Legge's translation)

"The airs near the river Pû" is a typically multi-layered classical reference; the best explanation I found in English is on John Thompson's qin page.

Popularity factor: 4


"The airs near the river Pû" may be a typically multi-layered classical reference, but it also lends itself to a low-minded joke which I am too dignified to actually lay out in this comment box. But rest assured that my inner nine-year-old is giggling.


An odd phenomenon of modernity is that every literate person in America could give you a rough sketch of the relationships between Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, etc., but if you are able to recognize a reference to the qin performance on the river Pû today, like Mr. Hiroshi was at least pretending to do in 1894, you have alienated yourself from the Far Eastern intellectual world and must make do with talking to specialists and real weirdos like 呉智英. At least they will always have the Saiyuki and Sangokushi.


FYI this is quoted in Dawn to the West... the second volume, probably page 17 (sorry, all I have access to right now is Amazon's limited preview). I remember because I got it from Keene, and I always use it in modern lit classes as a pithy way to show students how the Meiji discourse on literature had gotten caught up in masculinity and nationalism.


Avery: Who was the last non-niche public intellectual to draw on this stuff in Japan? Shiba Ryotaro? (Although, I had been given to understand that China is still pretty big on its own history. Also I would also be surprised if more than 10% of literate people in the English-speaking world could even tell you what the exact relationship between Socrates and Plato was, but point taken that they would at least know that they were ancient philosophers.)

Chris: Ah, I haven't read that one. It doesn't surprise me that Keene picked it up, though -- as you say it is a perfect encapsulation of the reevaluation of the national literature. I don't know much about Tekkan to be honest, but I wonder how these views, particularly regarding the corrupting influence of the feminine, sat with his wife.

Languagehat: See, the airs of the river Pu DO lead to debauchery and irresponsibility!

Comment season is closed.