May 1, 2012
(painting by Wang Hui)
The establishment of formal diplomatic relations with China also stimulated the writing of Chinese poetry and prose.
In 1877 the Chinese government sent a Minister Plenipotentiary with a large staff, including the distinguished man of letters Huang Zunxian (1848-1095). The Japanese officials enjoyed associating with these Chinese diplomats, who were apparently selected mainly for their literary talents. Social contacts with Western diplomats were generally uncomfortable for the Japanese, at a loss how to entertain their guests, but the Chinese it was at least possible to “converse” with the brush; though they differed in speech, the Chinese and Japanese belonged to the same world of Chinese characters and shared the pleasures of the gentleman-scholar which innumerable Chinese poets had celebrated.
In 1879 the well-known writer Wang Tao (1828-1897) visited Japan for four months and was kept busy with receptions offered by Japanese writers, who were eager to display their proficiency in classical Chinese and to learn the latest theories of poetics from the source. Qing poetry came for the first time to be widely appreciated. In 1878 Moro Shunto published an anthology of twenty-four Qing poets, starting a vogue for their style. On the other hand, Hung Zunxian published in 1879 日本雜事詩 (Poems on Various Subjects Concerning Japan), displaying an interest Japan which was then rare among Chinese. In 1882 Li Shuchang (1837-1897), the new Minister, arrived in Japan and soon was mingling freely with Japanese intellectuals. Minister Li devoted himself especially to collecting Chinese books that had been lost in China but preserved in Japan. When Li left Japan in 1890 Shigeno Seisai wrote a long prose farewell in Chinese, recounting both Japan’s indebtedness to China and Li’s accomplishments during his term as Minister.
Even Japanese who travelled to the West during this period often wrote their impressions in Chinese verse, as in this example by Narushima Ryuhoku (1837-1884)
The startled traveller wakes to the thunder by his pillow,
Rises and climbs among old trees to the roaring brink.
In the deep night, white all heaven and earth;
The moon comes, parting the curtain of a million misty peals.
One poet wrote a history of the West in 100 separate Chiense quatrains, going all the way from Adam and Eve to Bismarck. However, the Wanderer of the Eastern Seas, we are told, “always lamented that Americans lack elegance and artistic taste, and the he no friend with whom he could engage in the literary pleasures of describing flowers and the moon. For all their admiration of Western culture, the Japanese missed the aesthetic interests which they traditionally associated with cultured people, regardless of their occupations.
…the most popular kanshi (poems written in Chinese) were not by by professional poets but by soldiers…
Not only did Chinese visit Japan, but some Japanese travelled to China, for the first time in three hundred years. They were delighted to inspect sites long familiar to them from poetry, and they were moved to write poetry and prose of their own in Chinese.
- From “The Survival of Chinese literary Traditions in the Meiji Era” by Donald Keene.
What I want anyone reading this to take out of it is that Japanese attitudes towards China weren’t monotonic from 1853-1945! That’s almost a century of history. And even after the First Sino-Japanese War, there were people like Natsume Soseki who were more fond of Chinese culture than Western culture.