Friday, August 9, 2013

History mystery: NARA A Japanese capital of Chinese culture -2

In 735, a severe epidemic of smallpox struck down members of the imperial family. To appease the gods, the emperor Shomu (724-49) decided to build a huge gilded bronze effigy of the Buddha at Nara. The colossal statue, 15m (49ft) tall, can still be seen today – much restored, but intact. A vast hall was erected around the statue while work was still in progress, flanked to the east and west by two ten-storey pagodas. By 752, it had become part of a temple complex, known as the Todaiji. This was the pride of Nara, and it continued to be embellished for another ten years, during which time a Chinese monk architect named Ganjin arrived at Nara with some of his disciples. Ganjin founded a new school of architecture. He also attempted to bring Shintoism more firmly within the Buddhist fold, declaring that the native gods were earthly incarnations of Buddhist deities, and founded another school of Buddhism. In religion, as in all else, Japan displayed a remarkable ability to assimilate outside influence. Religion was not Nara’s only concern. Among the city’s notable buildings is the fabulous treasure house, the Shosoin – the world’s oldest museum, built in 756 by the widow of the emperor Shomu. Its walls are constructed of horizontally stacked cross-sections of timber, which drain water, absorb moisture, and shrink to allow ventilation when the air is dry. The humidity of the interior remains constant all year round, and as a result the exhibits remain intact to this day.

The museum’s 3,000 treasures provide a rich picture of court life during the 8th century. They include silks, brocades, inlaid furniture, mirrors, and ceramics, most of which were gifts offered by high officials to their sovereign. The emperor also stored tributes from travelers returning from China and Korea: medicinal plants, sacred manuscripts, technical treatises, Buddhist paintings, musical instruments, weapons, devotional objects, and numerous utensils. Goods from distant lands include a glass bowl Persian origin, fabrics from Central Asia, and a marble bas-relief of Byzantine inspiration. China’s influence had changed life in Japan immensely – at least for the lords, courtiers, and religious leaders. But the peasant masses continued to live as they had done for centuries. Japan’s many peasants, by their sweat, produced the wealth that supported the imperial court. Yet to the privileged citizens of sophisticated Nara they ranked no higher than animals. They wore clothes made of bark fibre, and their homes were simple mud huts. Their lives revolved around toiling in the fields, or breeding silkworms to produce finery for the elite. They were illiterate, and continued to worship their rural gods. Because of this class distinction, ordinary people were almost completely ignored in the great works of Japanese literature of the time.

They are mentioned only obliquely in the chronicles. The main change in their lives brought about by the foundation of Nara was a change for the worse. The taxes levied to finance building the capital weighed heavily on the poor. They paid the price for their country’s prestige – partly in crops, and partly in labour.

At least they were not plagued by warfare. The Nara period was, on the whole, a peaceful age. It came to an end in about 794, as the monk’s of the capital’s six main sects grew increasingly powerful. Peasants who could no longer bear the tax burden abandoned their fields. Finally, to escape the influence of the Buddhist priests, Emperor Kanmu established a new capital at Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto) – the ‘Capital of Peace and Content’. But the lessons learned at Nara were not forgotten. Japan had gathered all the elements necessary to produce a culture of its own, and at Heiankyo, a tradition of native Japanese architecture asserted it. Chinese influence remained strong for the next 150 years, but the country was emerging from its formative era. By the 10th century, Japan’s links with the mainland had been severed, its influences consolidated, and its high society had become one of the most sophisticated civilizations of all time.

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