Thursday, August 8, 2013

History mystery: NARA A Japanese capital of Chinese culture -1

One of the most striking aspects of Japan’s history has been its ability, at certain periods, to learn from foreigners. What happened at Nara, 13 centuries ago, was an example of the islander’s genius for adapting the traditions of other countries. ACCORDING TO MYTH, THE ISLAND OF JAPAN were divinely created, and the first Japanese were descended from the gods. In reality, their ancestors arrived from mainland Asia during the Palaeolithic period. Large numbers of immigrants also came from Korea in the 1st millennium BC, introducing rice cultivation and metallurgy. And it was from the mainland – China in particular – that Japan imported the beginnings of urban culture. Chinese Buddhism also took root in Japan, in the 6th century AD. The new religion came under the protection of Japan’s emperors, supplementing the existing official religion known as Shinto, the Way of the Gods.

By the late 5th century of the once fragmented nation, made up of small independent tribes, came under the rule of an imperial government established at the royal court of Asuka, today a small village 24km (15 miles) south of modern Nara. Major administrative reforms in the 7th century centralized authority under the emperor. The glamour and richness of the civilization in China exercised a magnetic attraction of Japan’s rulers. In AD 607 an imperial envoy, Ono no Imoko, was sent from Asuka to the Chinese court. He was granted an audience with the great Emperor Yangdi of China’s brilliant Sui dynasty. At the imperial palace the Japanese envoy started the interview by announcing with confidence: ‘The Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun greets the Emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun.’ To the Chinese – who thought of Japan as a semi-barbaric island – this opening was highly offensive.

It must have taken some delicate diplomacy to smooth over the outrage, for in the end the mission was a success. Over the years, many large delegations arrived from China in Japan. There were ambassadors with their secretaries and countless specialists, including doctors, monks, astrologers, soothsayers, sculptors, painters, carpenters, potters, and blacksmiths. The diversity of skills was immense. Many of the newcomers attached themselves to the Japanese court and became permanent residents. What Japan lacked was a capital city worth of its growing splendour. There were no major urban centres, and the imperial court – first established at Asuka – had moved as each monarch constructed a new palace complex. The Emperor Temmu planned a splendid capital comparable to those of China, and his widow, the Empress Jito, oversaw its construction at Fujiwara, which became the capital in 694.

But it was not until 710 that their vision was fully realized. Under the Empress Gemmyo, Nara was chosen as the permanent site for the imperial court. The city, known at the time as Heijo-kyo, was laid out like a vast chequerboard in the style of the Tang capital, Chang’an, in China. The architecture was Chinese-inspired, from palaces and monasteries with tall pagodas to administrative offices and imposing mansions with stone paving, painted wooden pillars, and roofs with semi-translucent glazed tiles. The power of the central government at Nara was open to challenge by provincial clan leaders. So in 712, to cement the authority of the throne, Empress Gemmyo (707-15) sponsored the writing of chronicles glorifying the myths of the imperial dynasty. The Kojiki, ‘Records of Ancient Matters,’ were written using Chinese script to represent Japanese sounds. At the same time, monks and scholars were copying out Buddhist texts, and Japan developed its own style of exquisite calligraphy. Manuscripts brought to Japan by Chinese monks and scholars include Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist treatises, and works on astrology and fortune-telling such as the Yi Jing (The Book of Changes). Nara became a centre for Buddhist learning and worship. Japanese Buddhism mixed several different traditions, and came to be represented by six different sects founded in the capital. Each had its own monasteries and temples, and its own aristocratic patrons. The monks were recruited chiefly from the nobility, who fought constantly for influence at court. In a spirit of toleration, the new religion accommodated the spirits and gods of the Shinto cults.

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