Thursday, September 18, 2008 9/18/08-Kyoto Women

In today's encore excerpt, the liberated women of the aristocracy in tenth and eleventh-century Japan:

"It just happens that the women of Kyoto, in the days when it was the residence of the Japanese emperor and known as 'the capital of peace,' made a record of what they felt, illuminating human emotion ... While men wrote learned texts on the usual subjects of war, law and religion, in the language ordinary people could not understand (Chinese, the Japanese scholars' equivalent of the Europeans' Latin), women started writing novels in the everyday Japanese language, and in the process invented Japanese literature. For about a hundred years novels were written only by women ... The world's first psychological novel is the Tale of Genji, written between AD 1002 and 1022, by a widow in her twenties ...

"In this period, it was shameful for an aristocratic woman to be dependent financially on her husband. She did not move in to live with him on marriage; each kept their own home. ... [t]hey had both the ability and time to reflect on their relations with men, which were unusual in that there were virtually no restrictions on sexual intercourse. ... Men could have many wives (some went up to ten at a time) and even more concubines. ... Wives were encouraged to have all the lovers they could attract, and virgins were thought to be blemished, possessed by evil spirits.

"Nobody expected a partner, either short or long term, to be faithful. A wife, indeed, believed that if her husband had many mistresses, she was more likely to have exciting and affectionate relations with him, provided she was the woman he preferred; that was a constant challenge. But this system became a nightmare because these wonderfully elegant people could not stand the uncertainty. Both men and women were morbidly jealous, even though jealousy was regarded as a breach of good manners. They all pined for security, though they were bored by it."

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Vintage, 1998, pp. 281-284.


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