Early Chinese and Japanese Societal Influences from Poetry

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The two nations of Japan and China are usually the ones that are most associated with Asian culture.  These two nations have a rich history and cultural heritage that has been observed and practiced for centuries.  The two nations share many aspects from their cultural identities and have had a long history in which one has gained knowledge and practices from the other, making the two nations very closely connected.  One such aspect in which the two nations have a shared sense of cultural heritage is seen in the characteristics of the poetry that has survived from the early times of the nation’s history.  Through the examination and analysis of the early poetry, the prominent features of the stylistic differences between the forms of poetry identify and distinguish the two different cultures from each other in several aspects and link them in other such ways.

From a historical sense, there is no doubt that the two cultures have shared many aspects of their own cultural identities with each other over the course of history.  This is especially true from the perspective of ancient China having its societal practices taken and restructured to the Japanese way of life.  For example, “in the 1st centuries A.D., the peoples of Japan imported a wide range of ideas, techniques of production, institutional models, and material objects from the Chinese mainland” (Stearns).  Once the Japanese had acquired the knowledge of such matters from China, they would restructure and modify what they had received in order to fit it into their own intricate societal practices.  Some of the most influential aspects that were taken from China and put into place within Japanese society were the arts and religion.

From China, Japan gained many rich, new materials and ideas that they introduced and utilized within their own society, none of which had the importance of the introduction of Buddhism and various art forms.  The spread of Buddhism and Confucianism from China affected many of its neighboring states, including Japan and Korea, but was supplemented into Japanese society in its own unique way (Stearns).  The Japanese people would blend their own traditional form of worship with the new ideology that was introduced with the Buddhist practices thusly creating a distinct form of religious worship that drew ties to China but was still uniquely Japanese.  The same notion holds true for the introduction of Chinese art to Japanese society.  The introduction of Chinese art had a direct impact upon the citizens of Japan in that they had a new form of influence to draw upon for their works, however as with many of the Japanese societal practices, the new innovations were coupled with the traditional forms of art that had been a part of the society for a great deal of time, which created a new, blended form of artwork produced from Japan by the Chinese influence.

This concept of adhering to strict rules and values is evident in much of the Japanese work throughout their early society.  It can be seen in their art, literature, and even their poetry.  As with many cultures earliest poetic works, the first Japanese poems were free-formed and covered a variety of different topics including love, satires, sorrow, praise of victory, war cries, riddles, and more ("Japanese Poetry").  However, unlike many other early societal poetry works, the original poetry of Japan was believed to be of divine descent.  It was speculated that the first poems written for the Japanese people had come directly from the kami ("Japanese Poetry").  Drawing upon this notion of being passed down from a higher power, the earlier poems that have been recorded by the Japanese people are all considered to have been written by individuals of much renown and importance in the Japanese societal structure.  For example, the poems of the early Japanese book Nihonshoki were all credited to the creation of individuals such as, “emperors, kami, empresses, generals, nobles, court enemies…” ("Japanese Poetry").  What this shows is that the importance of poetry was initially linked right to those of great power and respect, cementing the concept of the divine and respected nature of the craft to the common people from its earliest creations forward.

The place of poetry played a central role in the practices and customs of the people of Japan during the earlier parts of their culture.  The works of poetry served as a means by which an individual could demonstrate their creativity and eloquence, so the people of early Japan placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of this form of art as a means of showcasing their own creativity and cognitive prowess.  The importance and influence of poetry would grow up to the point that certain works have had a continuous place within society and the rituals that are practiced to this day.  Such is the case for many of the works within the ancient Japanese text, the Manyoshu.  In the poems written, the speaker gives a song about the beauty of a woman that he had a chance encounter with and then goes into a verse about the beauty and greatness of the Japanese land ("Japanese Poetry").  These poems gained some of the most notability of any Japanese poetry, even though they were free-formed and paid no real attention to a particular form or stylistic rules.  In fact, the work from Emporer Yuryaku in the collection is so influential that it is still used in court rituals to this day ("Japanese Poetry").  

With the evolution of Japanese poetry, one can observe that there are a strict set of principles and regulations that are monitored and adhered to by the society in order to maintain order in every aspect of life.  Japan placed a great deal on being disciplined in every aspect of the individual’s life, as evident with some of their cultural practices and the way in which the citizens of early Japan lived their lives.  One such aspect of control, discipline, and strict form that can be seen within Japanese culture as reflected through the society’s poetry is in the haiku.  The haiku is a type of poem that has a very strict set of rules that must be followed in order for the poem to be classified as a haiku.  In this particular form of poetry, the writer must have their first line of the poem contain exactly 5 syllables in it, the second must have exactly 7, and the final line must have exactly 5 again.  

The point of this style of poetry is to adhere to the strict form and rules of the creation in order to tell short, concise messages.  This is very symbolic of the rules that governed Japanese societal norms in the time period.  The people of Japan thrived to live lives that were the model of ridged organization.  For an individual to be in control of their own life, they had to show the utmost discipline in every aspect, including that of the arts.  This is not the only example of Japanese culture being governed by a strict set of guiding principles, as there are many other practices that assert the same forms of control and discipline upon the people of the society such as calligraphy, however the haiku’s strict set of rules and regulations serves as a perfect example of the way in which Japanese cultural features were represented within their poetic works.  

Chinese society has a longer history than that of Japan and has its own practices that shaped the culture of the peoples’ lives in the early portion of the history of the nation.  The history of China has been well documented and maintained and can trace itself back to over 3,000 years (Gill).  In this particular culture, the majority of the ancient history has been recorded in the form of scholars reflecting upon past events in order to guide the ruling class of the nation in the matters of policy implementation and justification for previous actions (Gill).  What this shows is that the Chinese culture, like most ancient ones, was recounted and maintained by the ruling elite class that had the ability to both read and write unlike the majority of the uneducated population.  For this reason the development of the poetry of the nation has distinct appeal to the higher class of individuals from its onset. 

The earliest Chinese poetic works are seen in the form of aristocratic poems and that of poetry that was most likely taken from common folk songs.  The works were all collected and produced in a manuscript that is known as the Shi Jing (Wertz).  These poems took a pretty free-formed approach and stylistic choice and covered a variety of topics in an interesting collection that combined the works of the ruling class of the nation with that of songs from the general population that were dictated and gathered from the rural, poor community.  The popularity of the poetic collection was so successful that many other works would follow The Shi Jing after its release to the public.  As with all forms of art in a society, the poetry of China would evolve over time and take on a more structured style.

With more time to structure and rework the poetic works of the nation, Chinese poetry would eventual evolve into the form of poetry known as Fu.  This type of poetry is characterized as being in rhyming verse with an introduction and conclusion that usually contains a form of prose that tends to consist of a question and answer (Wertz).  This form of poetry held popular until it was replaced with the Yue Fu form.  This particular form was characterized as having a strict set of “five to seven-character lines, with a caesura before the last three characters of each line” (Wertz).  This form showcased a similar set of cultural values and features that were similarly seen in that of the Japanese poems in many regards. 

The strict regulations of the Yue Fu form are reflective to that society of Chinese life in that they promote the strict regulation and control that is evident within the culture.  An individual must be able to balance the many flowing aspects that were different and constantly pushing and pulling them in many directions.  By being able to control their own life and collect their thoughts to a simple 5 to 7 character lines, the writer showcased the amount of discipline and self-awareness that was necessary to produce a work of this nature.  Unlike the haiku, however, this form of poetry allowed for some creative liberty as it was much longer and had no regulations down to the syllable count.  This allowed the poet to bring in their own creativity and unique sense of style to their works, similar to how the Chinese culture was slightly less regulated and control when compared to that of ancient Japan.  This is also showcased in the much more common view of poetry in general that early China had compared to early Japan. 

The origins of early Chinese poetry were much more based upon Earthly ground than that of early Japanese poetry.  Whereas Japanese society credited poetry to a divine creation, China showed that the poems in its earliest work had drawn from every aspect of human life.  The poems were a combination of scholarly work and that of peasant folk songs (Wertz).  This gave the poetry of early China a much more humanistic feel and it never had the mystic devotion that the people of early Japan had for their poetry. For this reason, Chinese poetry is not as well regarded throughout history and has not gained the same amount of notability when compared to the poetry of early Japan.  However, it still played an important role in the lives of the citizens of the nation throughout the history of early China.

The era of Chinese poetry that was seen as the most influential and important was that of the poetry of that Tang dynasty.  The people of China because of continually view this era of history with positivity.  During this time period, the rules of Chinese poetry were continually refined and given a more strict sense of regulations and form rules to follow.  It was in this period rules were set to, “govern tone patterns and the structure of the content” (Wertz).  This produced a more uniformed style of political poetry for the Tang dynasty, in which the writers followed the form rules to produce some of the best-regarded poetry of early China.  This form took a much more disciplined view of poetry and replaced the folk songs that were popular until the time.  Even with these new forms of rules and regulations for the poems, they were still not half as strict as the rules that governed Japanese poetry and would still allow for some form of creative freedom to be taken by the poet.  What was produced was a very solid mixture of creativity from the writers of the time while still having a high level of respect given to the form and rules that governed the creation of the poetry by the poets of the time.  For this reason, the poetry of the Tang dynasty continues to be the most renowned poetry of early China.     

The two nations, Japan and China, shared much in their past history.  China served as a sort of melting pot of ideas to many nations of Southeast Asia, in that it would share and spread its own cultural norms and societal discoveries with its neighbors.  For this reason, the similarities between early Japan and early China are evident, as early Japan took many aspects of early Chinese society and combined them with their own unique, cultural identity to create a hybrid society of the mixture of Japanese and Chinese characteristics.  The two nations can also show a reflected sense of cultural values and features through the examination of their early art and literary works, especially in the poetry of the time.  It is through the examination of the poetry, that some of the underlying similarities and differences of the two nations can be fully appreciated.  The two different nations shared the notion of the importance of discipline and regulation that governed the individuals’ lives, however, the level of intensity that the two nations followed this ideology differed and are evident in the different poetic styles.  From early Japan’s work, one can see that the notion of control and following of form was taken to the extreme in the production of the haiku, whereas in early China, more creative freedom was given in the Yue Fu form.

Works Cited

Gills, N.S. "China- The Historical Setting." Library of Congress- CHINA- A Country Study. Jul 1987, http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_chinahistoricalsetting.htm.

"Japanese Poetry." Facts about Japan, n.d., http://www.facts-about-japan.com/poetry.html. 

Stearns, Peter N. "The Spread of Chinese Civilization to Japan." History World International. n.d., http://history-world.org/Chinese Civilization To Japan.htm. 

Wertz, Richard R. "Chinese Literature: Poetry." Exploring Chinese History. 1998, http://www.ibiblio.org/chinesehistory/contents/02cul/c02s03.html.