The Heian period(794-1185), the so-called golden age of Japanese culture, produced some of the finest works of Japanese literature.1 The most well known work from this period, the Genji Monogatari, is considered to be the “oldest novel still recognized today as a major masterpiece.”2 It can also be said that the Genji Monogatari is proof of the ingenuity of the Japanese in assimilating Chinese culture and politics. As a monogatari, a style of narrative with poems interspersed within it, the characters and settings frequently allude to Chinese poems and stories. In addition to displaying the poetic prowess that the Japanese had attained by this time period, the Genji Monogatari also demonstrates how politics and gender ideals were adopted from the Chinese.
` In order to analyze how gender ideals in the Heian society were formulated and how they were expressed in the Genji Monogatari, it is necessary to have an understanding of the Chinese society from which they were derived. The Chinese works often alluded to in the Genji Monogatari are primarily from the Tang dynasty period of China(618-907AD), which formed the basis of the flourishing of Japanese culture during the Heian period.3 Therefore an analysis of Heian gender ideals must begin from the Tang dynasty court-life culture.
At the center of Japanese and Chinese politics and gender roles lies the teachings of Confucius. The five relationships (五倫） of Confucius permeated the lives of all within the Heian and Tang societies.4 However, the focus here will be on the lives of the courtesans. The Genji Monogatari provides us with an unrivalled look into the inner-workings of Confucianism and court life in the Heian period. Song Geng, in his discourse on power and masculinity in China, claims that Confucianism gives rise to what he calls the “fragile scholar” or caizi(才子) as it is referred to as in traditional Chinese literature.5 The so-called fragile scholar is a common character archetype seen throughout Chinese literature and, not surprisingly, also in the Genji Monogatari. In fact, Genji, the shining prince, is an excellent example of the caizi archetype as well as the Heian and Tang ideal of men.
From the descriptions of Genji found throughout the novel, the question of masculinity in Heian society is raised. Genji is frequently described as being elegant and beautiful to the extent that he could pass as a woman. Men and women both are left awestruck by his brilliant appearance and Genji himself is known to have sexual relationships with both sexes. Now, through a modern western perspective on gender, Genji would most likely be characterized as bi-sexual and clearly not representative of the ideal man. Yet, in Heian society, the ideal man was represented by the somewhat sexually ambiguous character of Hikaru Genji. The reasons for this go back to the Confucian standards of interpersonal relationships as well as the romantic ideal of the fragile scholar.
Through Genji’s relationships with...