What you see depends on where you’re standing. But you knew that, right?
Now, it was a terrible time and place to be poor. (When has it ever been fun to be poor?) But if you were a member of the nobility, especially if you spent your time at the capital in the Imperial court, your life revolved around elegance, fashion, style. Women took great care with their clothing – layers and layers of multicolored robes chosen for seasonally suitable themes. Their greatest pride was their long, long hair, as long as they were tall. Men and women alike put hours of thought into perfumes and poetry to help them succeed in their love lives. One of the world’s great novels, the Tale of Genji, came from the Heian court; so did one of the liveliest books of trivia ever written, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Elegance and beauty were everywhere.
And it was a world of grimy, sickly people. Both in the Tale of Genji and in historical fact, people died shockingly young. (Sei Shonagon thought she was old at thirty.) One reason for perfume was that various taboos kept people from bathing very often; Sei Shonagon tells us how amusing it is to see people’s clothing move as the fleas underneath jump around. (Not that anybody, anywhere a thousand years ago was able to come near the levels of health and cleanliness that we take for granted.) If we could be suddenly transported into that world, we would probably be horrified.
It must have been a little like a lifetime in high school, too. Nothing mattered more, it seems, than who you were in love with, what clique you belonged to, and how fashionable your clothes were. (Probably that’s because the average age was so pitifully young.)
And yet, it remains endlessly fascinating, this shadowy world of women swathed in layer on layer of carefully matched silks, peeping out from behind screens to glimpse their strutting menfolk perform elegant dances, brooding over the perfect wording of a poem to send as a reply to their latest admirer or to show their wonder at the season’s beauties.
(Images are from the Tokugawa Art Museum’s Handscroll of the Tale of Genji, on Wikimedia Commons. The scroll was painted around 1030 A.D. – when the Genji was a new story, written only about thirty years earlier – and is in the public domain because of age.)