Those of you who have already worked through Professor Dale’s component received an excellent introduction to aspects of traditional Chinese culture—particularly Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—that influenced the Tang poets and the classic tale, Monkey. The two exercises you are asked to complete here are examples of two classical Japanese literature genres: The Tale of the Heike, the most outstanding example of Gunki Monogatari, or “war tales,” and Bashô’s Haiku.
Introduction to The Tale of the Heike
Although China first acquired Buddhism from India, the religion much more profoundly influenced Japan. Many of your students know about samurai. China had its scholar-gentleman steeped in Confucianism and military men were, with exceptions, not particularly prominent in Imperial China. Japan, for various reasons, developed an elite warrior culture. Unlike European knights, samurai tended to be well-educated as well as adept at the art of war. Although the name “samurai” had not been invented in the 12th Century, a samurai culture that was very Buddhist-influenced was beginning to emerge.
This warrior culture is reflected in The Tale of the Heike; an epic about a real-life event, the struggle to the death between two powerful families for control of Japan that took place in the 12th century. Similar to Homer’s Iliad in many ways, special performing Buddhist monks chanted the story for almost a century to the accompanying music before a master at this art dictated the story on his death bed. As you read the excerpts keep in mind what you know about Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths:
- All life is suffering (because humans form attachments to impermanent phenomena when everything in this world is impermanent)
- Suffering is caused by this desire
- To end suffering, end desire
- The Eightfold Path (right view, right thought, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) should be followed to end desire.
As you read the excerpts, ask yourself another question: What other values besides Buddhism influenced warrior behavior?
Please write short paragraphs to answer each of the following questions.
- The first excerpt is of the opening lines to The Tale of the Heike. How do you interpret the meaning of the passage?
- What values are esteemed by the warrior class?
- Do you find religion an important theme in the passages? Why do you think this is the case?
- What is the mood of these passages? Is it one of victory? Of tragedy?
Introduction to Haiku and Bashô Matsuo (1644–1694)
Haiku, Japan’s most famous poetry genre probably needs no introduction, but if you aren’t familiar with it, you will be after this short segment. Bashô, one of its creators, is considered as famous in Japan as Shakespeare in the West. Please read Bashô's poems first, then proceed to watch each of the short video clips below. If you cannot watch the short videos on your computer, you’ll find transcripts below the videos, but please watch the clips if at all possible since the speakers are superb.
Matsuo Bashô (Japan: 1450–1750)
- Poetry of Bashô (Primary Source)
- Bashô Master of the Haikai and Haiku Forms (Video Units and Transcripts)
You may choose to navigate through the above links on the Columbia University
navigation menu on the left of each page, rather than returning to this page to follow the link.
In a 150- to 200-word essay, contrast the form and purposes of Haiku with other poetic forms you have read that are from the Western tradition.