Popularization of Literary Classics and Its Dissidents: The Case of Edo-Period Kanshibun
(National Institute of Japanese Literature)
Paper short abstract:
This paper will examine how Sinological scholars in Edo-period Japan at times warned against unfettered popularization of kanshibun (prose and poetry in classical Chinese), and what influence their arguments had on the ongoing popularization and standardization of Chinese literary classics in Japan.
Paper long abstract:
The Edo period saw an unprecedented surge in the popularization of kanshibun (classical Chinese prose and poetry) across Japan, in tandem with the growth of commercial publishing and wider availability of anthologies and instructional manuals. Due to high demand for intellectual pastimes, the number of readers and writers of kanshibun, including many amateurs, continued to rise throughout the mid to late Edo period. Sinological scholars vigorously worked to share their expertise in classical Chinese with their contemporaries. However, popularization was at times associated with degradation, particularly in matters concerning high culture. There was a fine line between enlightenment and cultural deterioration. That is why some Sinological scholars in 18th and 19th-century Japan expressed their concerns about the ongoing popularization of kanshibun. They believed that reading and composing kanshibun should remain a highly refined and sophisticated activity, and popularizing it without proper direction would eventually bring down the standards of literary taste and expression. This paper will consider the main arguments that were made against the popularization of kanshibun in the writings of mid to late Edo-period Sinological scholars such as Muro Kyusō (1658-1734), Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728), Minagawa Kien (1735-1807), Yamamoto Hokuzan (1752-1812), Kashida Hokugan (1757-1794), and Hirose Tansō (1782-1856), and examine what influences they had on the subsequent processes of popularization. Interestingly, their critical opinions ultimately helped accelerate, rather than halt, the spread of kanshibun by elevating standards, setting new trends in compositional style, and attracting new enthusiasts. After all, these scholars spoke out against not so much popularization per se as its potentially negative side effects. Classical literature, by definition, is difficult to master for a lay audience. The skepticism and reluctance with which some Edo-period Sinological classicists viewed and approached the popularization of their craft may have interesting implications for classical literary studies today.
Making literary classics accessible to a wider audience