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Heian Period

(794-1192 C.E.)


Heian ("Hey-on") Japan was the high point of Japanese aristocratic culture, a golden age of peace and harmony. The attitudes and aesthetic of court life established in this period continued many years after the emperor and his court lost power to the warring samurai. Upper class women, as well as men, were expected to become experts in music, writing, and the art of dressing well, including what colors to wear when and the proper drape of a sleeve. Images from scrolls show ladies and men languidly lounging, eating, drinking and writing. Their clothes seem loose and comfortable, their moon shaped faces surrounded by long, luxurious hair.

A person who was learned and who knew how to write good poetry was highly regarded. Poetry was often used as a go-between among men and women. At court one might be called upon to demonstrate one's knowledge of a certain poem, and be able to write a poem on the spot. Highly formal "poetry parties" were staged, testing one's wit and cleverness. An inept poem or misquoted phrase was laughed at and scorned. Poor calligraphy could also ruin a reputation.

The most important writers in the Heian period were women who wrote between 950 and 1050. Much of what we know today about upper class life in those long ago times is from the detailed accounts found in their diaries, novels, poems, and letters. Why is this so?

One reason is that women wrote in Japanese because they were forbidden to use Chinese. Men wrote in formal Chinese, the language considered to be of higher status because it was used in official and religious documents. This left Japanese, the "everyday" language, to women. Thus the often chatty writings of women using the "people's" language became popular and were widely circulated.

The Heian was a good period for aristocratic women in other ways as well. In keeping with their rank they enjoyed considerable freedoms. Although women were excluded from public affairs, they had influential roles at court, taking a keen interest in palace intrigues, state marriages, and promotions. Women could own property, be educated, and were allowed, if discrete, to take lovers. All in all, compared to their much diminished freedoms in the centuries to come, not a bad life for a well-to-do woman.

For a story and curriculum unit on women in feudal Japan see Samurai Sisters.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum