Category Archives: Notes

Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 was renowned as one of the four great beauties of ancient China. She was born about 50 BC as the youngest daughter of a much older father, who doted upon her, regarding her as a precious pearl. As she grew into a young woman, she became both a great beauty, and a highly accomplished one, able to play music, paint, write calligraphy and play the game of go, too. In 36 BC, when she was about 14, she was ordered to enter the harem of Emperor Yuan of Han, and left home regretfully. It is said that she played her lute to console herself as she rode her horse to the capital, and a flock of geese passing by were so struck by the beauty of her music and her appearance that they forgot to beat their wings and fell from the sky.

It was custom that once a young woman entered the imperial harem that the imperial portrait painter would make a painting of her to present to the emperor. Most new concubines would bribe him to portray them in a flattering light, but Zhaojun refused, so the painter made her look ugly in the painting and, as a result, the emperor never visited her while she was in his harem. Three years later, Huhanye, the leader of the Xiongnu, a nomadic people who lived on the steppes to the north of China, visited the capital and proposed a marriage between himself and one of the emperor’s daughters to cement relations. Unwilling to send one of his children off to the barbarian north, Yuan decided to offer instead the lowest ranking and ugliest of his concubines – Wang Zhaojun. Huhanye accepted the offer, and was overjoyed when Zhaojun turned out to be one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. The emperor was furious, but couldn’t go back on his word, so the marriage took place, and relations with the Xiongnu improved greatly. The unfortunate painter, though, was executed for dishonesty!

A certain personage

A reference to Fujiwara no Kiyosuke 藤原清輔 (1104-1177), a well-known earlier poet and critic. Shunzei’s reference to Kiyosuke is calculated, because the latter was one of the founders of the Rokujō poetic house to which Kenshō belonged. By claiming Kiyosuke’s authority for his interpretation, Shunzei is making it difficult for Kenshō and the other Rokujō poets in the competition to challenge him, without disagreeing with their illustrious predecessor.

Izumi Shikibu’s Poem

Modern commentators believe that Kenshō is misquoting a poem from Izumi Shikibu’s personal collection here:


yosa no umi
ama no amata ni
matsukata ni
ori ya torikemu
nami no hananami

By the see at Yosa
To the crowds of diver girls
Should I go and pluck them
From the blossoming breakers?

Ama no sakate

Ama no sakate 天の逆手 was a gesture used when invoking some kind of magical power, and probably involved clapping in some way, although exactly what it involved is now unclear – and the Right’s comment implies that it was already obscure by the time of this poetry contest. There is speculation from the commentators that it involved clapping the backs of the hands together rather than the palms, or with the hands horizontal, rather than vertical (sakate literally means ‘reversed hands’), The passage Shunzei is referring to in Ise Monogatari comes from the work’s Chapter 96, when a man has been abandoned by a woman who had promised to marry him: ‘The man raised his hands to heaven and clapped [ama no sakate o uchite], making a fearsome curse.’ There is a further example in the Kojiki when the deity Yaekotoshironushi no kami 八重事代主神 uses it for protective magic: ‘And thus he kicked over the boat, raised his hands to heaven and clapped, transforming it to a fence of verdant brushwood [ama no sakate o aofushigaki ni uchinashite], and concealed himself within.’ In any case, its use in this poem is simply because the word ama 天 (‘heaven’ ) was homophonous with ama 海人 (‘diving girl’).

Cloth-Wringing Falls

Nunobiki no taki 布引の滝 was a poetic location in Settsu Province. It is described in Ise Monogatari as being ‘as if the rocks were wrapped in white silk twenty take long and five take wide’. A take 丈 was a unit of measurement equivalent to 3.3 metres, making the waterfall 66 metres high, by 16.5 wide.

kawa yashiro shino ni

Shunzei is paraphrasing from Minamoto no Toshiyori’s critical work Toshiyori zuinō, where he states, ‘The expression shino ni “profusely” or “without rest”, when used in older poetry, can be understood as expressing the grief one seems to feel when cloth which one has wrung out to dry remains constantly damp for some reason.’

Kazan Sōjō

A reference to Henjō (816-890) one of the major poets of the Kokinshu. In the Preface to this anthology, Ki no Tsurayuki describes Henjō as one whose ‘style is good but who lack sincerity. His poetry is like a painting of a woman which stirs one’s heart in vain.’ (as translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd (1996: 43)) 「僧正遍照は、歌の様は得たれども、誠少し。たとへば、絵に描ける女を見て、いたづらに心を動かすがごとし」[sōjō henjō wa uta no sama wa etaredomo makoto sukoshi. tatoeba e ni kakeru onna o mite itazura ni kokoro o ugokasu ga gotoshi.]