The Japanese asserted their identity by revising the Chinese system of writing and adding kana, or phonetic symbols representing syllables. Japanese artists developed their own styles.

Japanese Culture in the Heian Period

This blending of cultures of Chinese influences with Japanese culture occurred during the Heian (hay ahn) period in Japan, which lasted from 794 to 1185. During this time, the imperial capital was located in Heian, present-day Kyoto. There, emperors performed traditional religious ceremonies, while wealthy court families like the Fujiwara wielded real power. The Fujiwara married their daughters to the heirs of the throne, thus ensuring their authority.

Hinged panels illustrated to show classical life in Japan, with people seated in decorated courtyards and walking in nature, appreciating trees and rivers.

During the Heian period, the wealthy aristocracy established a refined world that led to achievements in art and literature.

An Elegant Court

At the Heian court, an elegant and sophisticated culture blossomed. Noblewomen and noblemen lived in a fairy-tale atmosphere of beautiful pavilions, gardens, and lotus pools. Elaborate rules of etiquette governed court ceremony.

Courtiers dressed with extraordinary care in delicate, multicolored silk. Draping one's sleeve out a carriage window was a fine art.

Although men at court still studied Chinese, women were forbidden to learn the language. Despite these restrictions, it was Heian women who produced the most important works of Japanese literature of the period.

In the 900s, Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the empress, wrote The Pillow Book. In a witty series of anecdotes and personal observations, she provides vivid details of court manners, amusements, decor, and dress.

Lady Murasaki Writes the World's First Novel

The best-known Heian writer was Shonagan's rival, Murasaki Shikibu. Her monumental work, The Tale of Genji, was the world's first full-length novel. Even though learning by girls was considered improper, she studied with her brother and learned how to read and write. She served as a lady-in-waiting at court, where she observed its customs.

Sheet with Japanese script written vertically in columns.

The adopted symbols of Chinese writing could not convey the various meanings of Japanese spoken language, so kana symbols were developed to add sounds.

Composed in 1010, The Tale of Genji recounts the adventures and loves of the fictional Prince Genji and his son. In one scene, Genji moves with ease through the festivities at an elaborate “Chinese banquet.” After dinner, “under the great cherry tree of the Southern court,” the entertainment begins.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments