New Article – A fine thing for the way: evidence, counter-evidence and argument in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

For anyone interested in reading more about the poetic and critical practice in Roppyakuban uta’awase, take a look at my new article in Japan Forum, entitled ‘A fine thing for the way: evidence, counter-evidence and argument in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds‘.


This article discusses the types of evidence used to support the critical positions taken by Fujiwara no Shunzei and the monk Kenshō in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds (Roppyakuban uta’awase; 1193–1194). As the largest extant poetry competition judged by a single individual, Shunzei, the Roppyakuban uta’awase illustrates a wide range of compositional practice. It also provides a substantial body of practical waka criticism: by Shunzei in his role as judge, by the participants in their comments on their opponents’ poems, and by Kenshō in his ‘Appeal’ (Chinjō) against Shunzei’s judgements. Analysis of this critical discussion reveals that unusually, both Kenshō and Shunzei use testimonial evidence from informants to support their critical positions, and Kenshō even utilises his own scholarship and poetic writing, in addition to the expected citation of prior poetry and poetic scholarship by poets of previous generations. Though Shunzei limits his testimony to that from members of the court nobility, Kenshō frequently supports his arguments with evidence from members of the peasantry, revealing that the opinions and views of the lower social classes could be given weight in the critical discussions of waka poets at the end of the twelfth century.

Sheffield Book Launch – The Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds

There will be a book launch for my translation of the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds taking place in Sheffield on 10 December 2019. The event is free and open to the public, but prior registration is necessary. To register, please use the link below.

Cover of the Poetry Competition in 600 Rounds book

The monumental ‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Roppyakuban uta’awase) (1193-94) is one of the key texts for understanding poetic and critical practice in late twelfth century Japan, and the conflict between conservative and innovative poets which was to play out in the following decades. For the contest, twelve poets each provided one hundred waka poems, fifty on seasonal topics and fifty on love, which were matched, critiqued by the participants and judged by Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), the premiere poet of his age. The competition’s critical importance is heightened by the addition of a lengthy ‘Appeal’ (chinjō) against Shunzei’s judgements by the conservative poet and monk, Kenshō (1130?-1209?). It is this combination of poetry, criticism, judgements and appeal that made the competition so significant and ensured that it had a lasting influence on the subsequent assessment of poetry in later competitions by other judges and critics.

As the culmination of a ten-year project, the Contest and Appeal are being published for the first time in complete English translation with detailed accompanying commentary and explanatory notes by Dr Thomas E. McAuley, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. (McAuley, T. E. (2020) The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds (2 vols): A Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill).

In this Book Launch seminar event, Professor Christina Laffin (University of British Columbia) will set the context of the Contest with a special lecture:

Vernacular, Cosmopolitan, and Poetic Learning in the Age of the Roppyakuban uta’awase
This lecture will consider forms of knowledge and practice that contributed to the late twelfth century production of the Roppyakuban uta’awase (1193-1194), focusing on gender, modes of learning, and literacy. How may we reconstruct the processes of literacy and socialization represented in the writing of vernacular and Sinitic poetry (waka and kanshi) and in what ways did literacy differ based on gender, status, and client-patron relations? New research on Sinitic poetry and prose (kanshi and kanbun) has reimagined the textual terrain of premodern Japan as representing various “entangled modes of literacy” (Guest) which relied on a foundation in kanbun primers and commentaries. But scholars have tended to refrain from considering women as kanbun readers, producers, and annotators based on limited “proof” of such activities in the form of Sinitic texts written by women. I will argue that the problem of women, learning, and literary production in the vernacular and cosmopolitan requires a contextualized approach which accepts plural forms of literacy and considers the particular forms of education and socialization that took place in premodern Japan.

Dr Thomas McAuley will discuss the translation of the Contest and its significance in:

Washed by the waves of Waka Bay: Competitive composition and criticism in early medieval Japan
‘The poems have been so good every round that my brush is drenched with this old man’s tears’. So says Shunzei in his concluding comments to the competition’s poems on the topic of ‘Love and Travel’, but what does this mean in the highly formalised context of a poetry contest (uta’awase), and how should this be conveyed to an audience separated from medieval Japan by a gulf of almost a thousand years? This presentation will commence with a discussion of the key features of waka poetry, the choices confronting the translator in addressing them, and the impact these have on the final product. Informed by this context, it will then move on to outline the bases for the participants’ criticisms of each other’s work, Shunzei’s judgements, and how these were accepted or rejected by Kenshō in his ‘Appeal’. Through this, it will attempt to answer the simple question of what makes a waka ‘good’?

Speaker Biography

Christina Laffin researches classical women’s writings, travel, and social mobility in Japan. At the University of British Columbia she holds the Canada Research Chair in Premodern Japanese Literature and Culture and leads classes on travel and life writing. She has published a book about the medieval poet Nun Abutsu (Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women, Hawai‘i 2013), coedited a bilingual collection on a (Ominameshi, Cornell East Asia Series, 1999), and managed the editing of a multi-volume anthology on Japanese history (Gender and Japanese History, Osaka University Press, 2003). She is currently coediting a textbook on Japanese poetry and translating the world’s first career guide for women, which was completed around the year 1264.