Monday, June 17, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Ideal of the Bunjin (“Scholar-Amateur”)

Despite the fact haikai was a native Japanese poetic genre, it was closely linked with the world of sinophile intellectuals that flourished in [the eighteenth century], and the Basho Revival owned much to the ideas and notions that circulated within it.

-- Cheryl A. Crowley,  Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival (p. 47)

In the afterword to his influential book, Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Richard Gilbert emphasizes that

The last decade has been a journey of discovery, involving meetings and discussions with “primary sources," living authors. One of the remarkable aspects of the poets represented here, and what is generally true in the contemporary gendai world, is that notable poets are often just as creative and articulate in the field of literary criticism as that of poetic composition. These two fields, separate and intellectual worlds in the west, ride in tandem. This seems due to an ancient, abiding social structure, based on kukai (translated as 'haiku gathering-party) The practice of haiku naturally requires introspection, yet the poem is routinely wedded to social occasion.... Haiku gatherings are energizing, festive, educational, and enjoyable (p. 299).

(Note: With his kind permission, I repost one of  M. Kei (‏@kujakupoet)'s today's tweets, which is relevant to our discussion here: Tanka experts are people devoted to tanka, who read, practice, and study it... emphasis mine)

In my view, one of the main reasons why “notable poets are often just as creative and articulate in the field of literary criticism as that of poetic composition” is that like Chinese literati, these notable Japanese poets grew up with a tradition of the ideal of the "bunjin" (Chinese original: "wenren," which means "scholar-amateur").

Below is excerpted from my essay, entitled "Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival," which was first published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011 and reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011):

The Japanese term "bunjin" has a centuries-old history beginning in the Heian period (794--1185) known for its poetry and highly influenced by Chinese Tang culture. Its original meaning was “a literate person serving in a civil capacity” as opposed to bujin, who is in military service).” 34 some scholars stress that it was not until the eighteenth century that there was the “emergence of a more specific bunjin phenomenon,…presented as follows: discontent among the educated and a concurrent upswing in the study of Chinese philosophy, literature and art, stimulated some intellectuals to take the image of the Chinese [scholar-amateur] (the wenren)…as their model.”  35

The concept of “wenren” is highly related to that of “renwen” (wenren written inversely in Chinese). It can be found in Yi Jing, also known as The Book of Changes, which is one of the oldest of Chinese classics. 36 Renwen can roughly be translated as meaning the "arts of humanity," one component of the three-fold Chinese universe: heaven, earth, and humanity. It "embodies all that is of the highest value to the society, and interacts with the other two: the spiritual and philosophical (tianwen) and the environmental and ecological (diwen). 37 A person cultivated in renwen was originally called wenren. However, the meaning of wenren has changed over time. In its most idealized form, wenren referred to “scholar-officials who – either through misfortune or because of some political conviction – withdrew from circles of power, and spent their time writing poetry, practicing calligraphy and painting, and enjoying the company of like-minded friends. Wenren did not sell their work, but used it as a means of contemplation and self-cultivation.” 38 Generally speaking, these wenren embodied a finely cultivated artistic sensibility They were dedicated to the “amateur ideal” and therefore denounced the commercialization of art. John Rosenfield once summarized the ethos of this learned gentry as follows:

Scholar-Amateurs… practiced calligraphy, poetry, and painting with more or less equal facility; they played musical instruments, collected antiques, carved seals, and engaged in literary scholarship. No matter how adept they might become in these avocations, they refused to think themselves as professionals. ‘if you fall into the demon world of the professional painter, ‘ wrote the [Chinese] theorist Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636), ‘there is no medicine that can save you.’ In their concerns for self-expression they refused to work for unsympathetic patrons or for the marketplace.  39

For example, in 1751 the Kyoto poet Mootsu published an excellent verse anthology that he hoped would revive interest in the haikai of the past masters, especially that of Basho, and he invited Buson to write a preface. 40 At age thirty-five, Buson was a struggling painter with a good reputation in Edo who had a sharp eye for the socio-poetic development of the haikai, strongly criticizing the mainstream tentori haikai in the preface:

Nowadays those who are prominent in haikai have different approaches to the various styles, castigating this one and scorning that one, and they thrust out their elbows and puff out their cheeks, proclaiming themselves haikai masters They will flatter the rich, and cause the small-minded [i.e., tentori poets] to run wild, and compile anthologies that list numerous unpolished verses. Those who really know haikai frown and throw them away. 41

Buson’s discontent with a highly commercialized form of haikai was an “inextricable part of the image of the [bunjin]” of his day. 42 In fact, historically and educationally speaking, point scoring was not in itself an evil tool, but rather an educational means widely used by the masters of waka and renga for centuries. 43 Buson also used it to inspire his disciples to achieve the highest possible standard of haikai: “mediocre verses received no points, but better verses merited scores of seven, ten, twenty, and twenty-five points depending on their quality… and [he] used special seals to mark the verses that used phrases that made allusions to famous Basho’s hokku.”  44 For example, the verses that made skillful allusions to Basho’s frog hokku merited twenty points. 45 It was the cheapening effects of popularizing and commercializing haikai that made Buson hostile towards tentori practitioners. The only thing on the minds of those practitioners was to write seemingly more dazzling, zoku-favored poem in order to score more points. But, for Buson and his fellow Basho Revival poets who embraced the bunjin ideal, “how to balance zoku and ga in haikai was a perennial question.” 46

As Cheryl Crowley emphasizes in her well-researched book, Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival, ideologically speaking, there were “two points of intersection between the bunjin ideal and the Basho Revival.” 47 The first point was that reading and writing poetry was not only a joyful pleasure, but also the “cultivation of the spirit.” 48 The second was the genuine, deep-rooted contempt for any form of commercialized art. 49 Furthermore, in order to assert their options of choosing patrons, many scholar-amateurs “declined to work even for the imperial count when they believed it to be corrupt and debased in taste.” 50

In Buson’s day, a lot of serious-minded haikai poets were closely associated with the sinophile intellectuals who helped give rise to the idealization of bunjin, particularly those poets who wrote kanshi 51 Among his fellow poets and friends, Miyake Shozan ( 1718--1081) and Kuroyanagi Shoha (1727--71) exerted great influences on him in broadening and deepening his knowledge of Chinese literature. 52 Shozan was known for publishing kanshi anthologies, and one of his most important works was his 1763 Haikai Selected Old Verses, an influential Basho Revival collection of verses that was modeled on one of the most greatest Chinese verse anthologies, Tang Selected Poems. 53 Buson’s frequent use of imagery alluding to Chinese literature was in part due to Shozan’s influence. 54

Shoha studied Chinese classics first in the school founded by Ito Jinsai (1627--1705), a fundamental parts of whose teachings was to “organize and recapture the classics of the past,” 55 and later he studied with Nankaku, with whom Buson also studied. Shoha wrote a lot of kanshi in his early life, and came to learn haikai later with Buson. Of his students, Shoha was among “those with the strongest ties to the literate, sinophilic culture that engendered the ideal of the bunjin.” 56 His conversations with Buson on haikai later became the key component of the preface Buson wrote for the Shundei Verse Anthology, and this preface was one of the most influential texts for the Basho Revival, revealing that Buson’s view of the poetics of haikai was shaped by Chinese influences. 57 (Due to its significance on how to write good haiai, I quote the following lengthy passages from Crowley’s translation):

I went to visit Shundei-sha Shôha at his second house in the west of Kyoto. Shôha asked me a question about haikai. I answered, "Haikai is that which has as its ideal the use of zokugo (ordinary language), yet transcends zoku (the mundane). To transcend zoku yet make use of zoku, the principle of rizoku, is most difficult. It is the thing that So-and-So Zen master spoke of: 'Listen to the sound of the Single Hand,' in other words haikai zen, the principle of rizoku (transcending the mundane)." Through this, Shôha understood immediately.

He then continued his questions. "Although the essence of your teaching must be profound, is there not some method of thought that I could put into use, by which one might seek this by oneself? Indeed, is there not some shortcut, by which one might, without making a distinction between Other and Self, identify with nature and transcend zoku?" I answered, "Yes, the study of Chinese poetry. You have been studying Chinese poetry for years. Do not seek for another way." Doubtful, Shôha made so bold as to ask, "But Chinese poetry and haikai are different in tenor. Setting aside haikai, and studying Chinese poetry instead, is that not more like a detour?"

I answered, "Painters have the theory of 'Avoiding zoku:' 'To avoid the zoku in painting, there is no other way but to read many texts, that is to say, both books and scrolls, which causes the qi to rise, as commercialism and vulgarity cause qi to fall. The student should be careful about this.' To avoid zoku in painting as well, they caused their students to put down the brush and read books. Less possible still is it to differentiate Chinese poetry and haikai." With that, Shôha understood.

In the passages above, Buson clearly tells Shoha that

1) the key point of writing good haikai is to make good use of the ordinary language and yet transcend the mundane world, and that 
2) the direct route to achieve this goal is to study Chinese poetry.

Buson’s theory of “avoiding zoku” basically paraphrases the one that is articulated in Mustard and Garden Manual of Painting compiled by Chinese artist Wang Gai (1645-- 1707), a book with which many renowned Chinese painters began their drawing lessons, and which was particularly influential among Japanese nanga artists. 59 As Cheryl Crowley stresses, “despite the fact haikai was a native Japanese poetic genre, it was closely linked with the world of sinophile intellectuals that flourished in [the eighteenth century], and the Basho Revival owned much to the ideas and notions that circulated within it.” 60 We can see this clearly in the poetic career of Buson, the central figure in the Basho Revival movement who is often regarded as the second greatest of the haikai poets.


  1. Written in the Japanese tradition of honkadori, 1 Yosa Buson’s frog hokku below opens up a window into the lamentable situation of the eighteenth century haikau community.

    one of our ancestor’s verses

    the old pond's
    frog is growing elderly
    fallen leaves

    And the Basho Revival moment began in 1743, the fiftieth anniversary of Basho’s death: a memorial anthology was published by his followers. It “came to the fore in the 1760s and climaxed during 1770s – 1780s… [and was] led first by Taigi (1709 – 71) and then by Buson (1716 – 83).” For further information, see Shirane, pp. 33-7.

    For more information about the movement, see my essay,Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival.

  2. Below is my reply to Kei's comment:

    A "poet" must be, first and foremost, an "avid and attentive reader."

    In the Chinese-influenced poetic tradition, "these two fields [literary criticism and poetic composition], separate and intellectual worlds in the west, ride in tandem."