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|Posted: Sun Jul 04, 2010 4:59 pm Post subject: Book Review: Grass Hill
I stumbled upon this book in a rather circuitous way. It all started while I was searching for references to Ishikawa Jozan in Google Books to uncover more books referring to him. This led me to an excerpt from Tea of the Sages: The Art of Sencha, by Patricia Jane Graham. In her book she cites two seventeeth century publications that included biographies of Ishikawa: Records of Japanese Hermits (Fuso initsu den) by Gensei (1623-1668) and Recent Stylish Recluses (Kindai yasa inja) by Seiroken Kyosen [if anyone is aware of an online Japanese edition, please advise]. I tried to track down both books on the Internet, only to discover a single book by Gensei called Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei, translated by Burton Watson. Unfortunately, there was no preview of the book allowed on Google, so I had to order it blind in the faint hope that the biography of Ishikawa was included amongst the prose selections. Once again, I used my new favourite source of cheap rare books in good condition, alibris, a highly recommended source for out of print Japanese history books (disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the company).
The book was a hardcover in very good condition. The plastic jacket protector suggested that it might have been part of a university library collection, and its clean pages suggested that it was never borrowed. The only drawbacks were a slight bit of water damage to the back cover and two pages glued together. I managed to separate them with minimal damage, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing I don’t specialize in surgery.
The book itself is a slim 116 page volume including the appendix. Considering that total includes 79 pages of poetry, the length is normal for the genre. Watson strikes me as an accomplished translator, and I have found no cause for complaint in the two books of his I have read to this point. The biggest flaw of the book is that the original Japanese versions of the poems are not included, which makes it difficult to compare the original to the translation to see if the sense of the poems was retained.
The book is separated into three main sections: Introduction, Poetry, and Prose Selections.
Introduction: Like he did in Kanshi, Watson provides a concise biography of the poet and the historical context in which he lived. In it we learn that his father fought with the Western army at Sekigahara, and that his eldest sister was a favoured concubine of Ii Naotaka, who then assisted his eldest brother in securing a position in that domain. His second sister married into a branch of the Tokugawa family, and his two other brothers became monks. It appears that Gensei had a choice between a path as a samurai or a monk, and having chosen the latter, found the time to write the works for which he is remembered today.
Watson notes that Gensei and Ishikawa Jozan shared a mutual friend in the Chinese poet Chen Yuan-yun, and yet he could find no evidence that Gensei and Ishikawa had ever exchanged poems, despite their reputation as the two best kanshi writers of their time. One particular passage in the introduction caught my eye, and I will quote it at length here, because it will serve as a launching point for a discussion later in the review: “Why two such eminent men of letters should studiously ignore each other is unclear. One suspects there must be some intriguing story here, but so far no one has ferreted out the facts.” Given that the book was published in 1983, it is quite possible that new light has been shed on this mystery, but if not, there seems to be enough evidence in the poetry and prose selections to construct a reasonable answer to Watson’s question.
Poetry: The poems included in this collection can be divided roughly into two categories: religious and personal. The religious poems contain explanatory footnotes to assist modern readers with the allusions, but even with that assistance the impact of the poems is likely to be diminished for anyone without a firm grounding in Buddhism. The personal poems offer welcome glimpses into quotidian Edo period life that put a human face on the historical record. Gensei writes about the joys of searching for new books in the Kyoto marketplace in a way that modern bibliophiles will recognize, but the more appealing aspect, perhaps, is receiving eyewitness testimony about the thriving book market that emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century. One of the most poignant verses in the collection is the one written about Mimizuka--the infamous "Ear Mound."
They took the pickles, brought them back, built this grave mound here:
pity those who parted from loving parents ten thousand miles away.
A poem in Japanese would mean little to foreign ears--
I struggle to fashion a Chinese poem to comfort these wandering souls.
Not every poem possesses the same depth, but even the ones with less literary merit often retain some historical interest.
Prose: Another theme that appears in the poetry and extends into the prose is that of filial piety. Gensei takes great pains to honour his parents and to point out how he has cared for both of them without becoming a Confucian. In his biography of Gio, Gensei expresses pride in the fact that he did not even have to persuade Gio of the superiority of Buddhism to Confucianism--it was enough to let Gio discover this truth on his own through time and reflection. It is this passage that ultimately demonstrates the most valuable aspect of this book, revealing the thoughts of a Buddhist thinker from a time period when Confucian thinkers are relatively overrepresented in English translation. In short, the seventeenth century was a rough one for Buddhism in Japan, with a series of prominent thinkers starting with Fujiwara Seika choosing Neo-Confucianism over Buddhism. That Ishikawa Jozan also chose Neo-Confucianism after a period of study at Myoshinji Temple is probably enough to explain why a devout Buddhist like Gensei never sought him out for a poetry exchange (since I haven’t read Gensei’s biography of Ishikawa yet, it is possible that my speculation won't hold up). Even though Ishikawa wasn’t a dogmatic Neo-Confucian, religious/philosophical rivalry seems like a more plausible explanation than the two alternatives 1) literary rivalry--Gensei speaks with great humility about his own abilities or 2) a negative encounter while both lived in the Ichijo area during the late 1640s--because there is no evidence they met during that time. As for the other prose passages, the familiar concerns of the poetry section, religion and daily life, are again well represented.
While a book like this is likely to have a limited audience, it serves that audience well. If you are interested in Japanese poetry, intellectual history, or the lives of seventeenth century Japanese, it’s time to start scouring used bookstores and on-line resellers. Happy hunting.
Over a Hedge