Research Seminar – University of Southern California

As part of a short book tour to launch the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds, I’ll be giving a presentation on Thursday, 30th January, between 4:00-5:30 at the University of Southern California.

Confusion over Cathay: Attitudes to Chinese Material in Mediaeval Japanese Poetic Criticism


The complex nature of premodern Japanese literary production, and Japanese writers’ use of a continuum of scripts and languages, ranging from pure Japanese to pure Chinese, depending upon the genre, purpose and audience of their writing, is well known, however, little attention has yet been paid to the critical attitudes displayed by judges and participants to the use of Chinese material in the composition of waka poems presented for competitive consideration in uta’awase (poetry competitions). Given the importance of uta’awase as both arenas for critical discussion and conflict, and also as events which were considered to set the standards for good composition, this means that one of the major influences upon attitudes to the use of Sinitic material in literary production remains unexplored.

Thus, this paper will present preliminary conclusions from an ongoing research project investigating the early mediaeval poetry competition, Roppyakuban uta’awase (‘Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds’, 1193-94) and the conflicting critical attitudes to material of Chinese origin expressed by the judge, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), and one of the participants, the monk Kenshō (1130?-1209?), who composed an extensive Chinjō (‘Appeal’) against Shunzei’s criticisms of his work. Roppyakuban uta’awase, its judgements and appeal are significant in this respect as the competition is the largest judged by a single individual, Shunzei, the most significant and influential poet of his age, while Kenshō’s Chinjō, by virtue of its length and complexity, strongly resembles a work of poetics in its own right. Evidence  exists for the competition’s influence on judgements in subsequent poetry competitions, and so it would be logical for its effects to be felt in other areas, too.

This paper will address the two poets’ conflict in the following areas: use of Chinese vocabulary in waka composition; intertextual references to kanshi (Chinese poems) whether composed in Japan or China; and intertextual references to other Chinese literary-historical sources. A preliminary analysis of their statements has revealed that they: vary between criticising the use of Sinitic vocabulary as unsuitable or accepting it; are equivocal about overly Sinitic topics; praise identifiably Sinitic inspiration for waka composition; and alternately praise and criticise reference to Sinitic sources as evidence for critical positions on other waka in the competition.

For further details, see here and you can download a flyer here!