We meet the famous beauties of ancient China and Japan, and learn the tragic ends their beauty brought them. First, however, explore six Basho visions of the beauty of woman’s face and form.
She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. She is the center of the scene, the man a mere object of her desire and action. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth; “a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is so-so, not great, but livable. Basho continues this narrative; her chance for a thousand koku is about to ride off into the distance, so he grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love this woman; she is so vital and active. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
The family has adopted a son-in-law from the far northern island of Hokkaido where (from a mainland Japanese point of view) are no attractive women – but many bears. He can barely speak a few words of Japanese so is frustrated in trying to communicate with his bride; he just stands there, “a wordless butterfly in a haze” gazing as the beauty he has been given. Miyawaki points out that she may not be “beautiful” to our standards but, compared to what he has seen before, she is Aphrodite.
Winter solstice on the porch with him, the Sun at her most distant point from us, so far his heart away from mine. This is a season of depression in all aspects of life, and adding on my personal disappointment, makes me desperate. So where does Basho go from here? I use all my skill with cosmetics and clothing, and look at him with all the charm I can muster, yet still he does not look back at me. Young women, this verse belongs to you! Not to the old man scholars. This is your experience or your sister’s, is it not?
I try to speak to her, but she hides her face from me. The second poet puts Basho’s shy woman on a boat one morning after a night of sleeping, or trying to sleep, while seasick. Basho focuses on her hidden face; the follower on her hair.
Basho says that under the full moon the entire world, even a sour face, takes on beauty from above. Izen follows with a women taking out her feelings as she pounds the cloth to soften it.
Unable to endure the message in the letter, I tear it to shreds, then am shocked to see in the mirror the reflection of the demon of my jealousy.
At Matsushima Bay, traditionally considered the most beautiful scene in Japan; the brilliant blue water is studded with countless islands, mostly in strata of volcanic rock, Basho writes of the beauty of Earth as one with the beauty of a woman:
Basho’s geological descriptions must rank as the strangest yet most vivid ever written. He paints the scene with lively specific verbs – towering, lying flat, piling up, folding, branching, stretching, carry behind or hugging in front – and adorned with images of women and children.
To each island cling one or a few pine trees, trunks and branches bent to fantastic angles. “Their crookedness seems as if inherent” means the crookedness is NOT inherent but seems to be. No matter how the pines are bent and twisted in the wind, they retain their inherent pine-tree straightness. Adaptation by an individual does not alter the genome. Only selection through generations changes inherent nature. So too, in a woman; she adorns her face with make-up, but the real beauty lies within, unchanging.
When we focus on Basho’s female imagery, we encounter the reality of a woman’s life: in this passage, her child-bearing and her beauty both outer and inner.
Basho and Sora are at the Cove of Kisa famed among poets, in the rain so common on this gloomy coast facing Siberia. For the scene here, Basho envisions the tragic beauty of Lady Seishi, one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, born in 506 BCE -- 22 centuries before Basho. Her beauty was such that “while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be so dazzled they would forget to swim, birds would forget to fly and fall from the sky.” Basho writes:
Dad’s face is red from working in the sun, or skin disease, or drinking alcohol. His beard has not been trimmed for some time. By portraying ugliness, Basho suggests the polar opposite, the beauty of the daughter. Ain’t it the truth?
In 490 when she was 16, Seishi was sent in tribute to the King of Wu who was occupying her home state, with the purpose of using her female power to weaken their government from within. She seduced the King to forget about state affairs and to execute his wisest advisor and general. After 17 years of her efforts, her home state conquered their oppressor. Seishi did not enjoy her undercover mission; she probably wanted to live her own life instead of being a piece, even the Queen, in someone else’s chess game. It was said (by men) that Seishi was most beautiful when frowning, her eyes half-closed in resentment (a notion only a man could hold).
At Matsushima Basho saw the sunny Pacific coast of Japan, as "a beautiful woman adorns her face."
At Kisagata, he says
Keene translates “Kisagata is like grief” and Hamill makes it “seems bereaved”, but Shoko insists that Seishi is not in grief or mourning; she is just pissed at those old men who are stealing her life. Shoko wants me to translate “Kisagata like a grudge”, and since she, like Seishi, is a woman, I obey.
The nebu is a tree which grows to 10 feet, a mimosa or silk tree. The blossoms in summer are clusters of long needle-like stamens, each with white on the inner section white and red on the outer, so they resemble long eyelashes with white and red makeup. These blossoms shine in the sunlight, but when it rains, they droop miserably.
Basho’s verse is a ‘sketch’ of a beautiful woman frowning in resentment. The long red and white stamens of the flower suggest the make up on the eyelashes of an elegant courtesan like Seishi –yet the mascara is smeared by tears – or since woman and Earth are one, smeared by rain.
And under those lashes is that frowning motion in the muscles between the eyes (whose accumulation nowadays is removed with Botox). Charles Darwin noted that frowning is the one facial expression unique to humanity:
In comparison (to human faces) apes’ faces are inexpressive, chiefly owing to their not frowning under any emotion of mind …(human) eyebrows may be seen to assume an oblique position in persons suffering from deep rejection or anxiety; for instance I have observed this movement in a mother while speaking about her sick son.
Seishi suffered from chest pains (i.e. tuberculosis). According to the tongue twister:
(What fun! Try it three times in a row.)
In Romanized Mandarin:
In Chinese characters:
A strong but penniless man saw the famous Yoshiwara prostitute Little Murasaki in a procession, and was so enthralled with her beauty that he killed 130 people to obtain the gold to make a statue of her which he offered to the brothel in exchange for her contract. Instead he was caught and executed. When Little Murasaki found out what he had done, that she had been the cause of so many deaths, she committed suicide beside his grave. (What would you have done?) This happened in 1679. Four years later, in Empty Chesnuts, Kikaku’s anthology of linked verses, he wrote and Basho followed:
People made fun of the man and his obsession with Little Mursaki’s beauty. Imagine that: he cast her in solid gold; what an ego-trip! LOL Even her nipples were gold!! Basho counters with the nipples of Otafuku, a legendary character who anthropologist Michael Ashkenezi calls a “full-checked, plump peasant woman laughing happily” -- her name means “large breasts.”
Kurodai often caught by fisherman are actually only black on the backside and fins; the rest of the fish is silver-grey – so I guess to Basho could look like dark nipples on a light-colored breast. Her breasts may be huge, but Japanese men adore slender women, so Otafuku will never be loved by a brilliant shining Emperor, never be depicted in a golden statue. Unlike the golden nipples of the fool’s Little Murasaki, her nipples will be “soiled by rice-seedling mud.”
In his prose introduction to Kikaku’s anthology, Basho tells us the sort of imagery to be found here:
The Emperor was so in love with Lady Yang that in the neglected bedrooms of his other ladies, ivy vines entered through holes in the wall to reach the clothes hangers. According to the current class ranking, merchants are the lowest class even when rich. In wealthy families, each generation raises the daughter “in a cocoon” to protect the precious little girl from getting knocked up – until finally she gets married only to fight with her mother-in-law. Basho the Sociologist.
In Kikaku’s “shock waves of language” one cannot tell what is real and what is not. (Is that praise or criticism?) Kikaku, I know you like this flashy stuff about courtesans sculpted in gold and women fighting each other, and I know people are going to steal it from you – but I prefer the truth of ordinary peasant women laughing happily.
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Bo Juyi (Po Chu’i), a narrative poem in 120 stanzas, sings of Yang Kuifei.
She was born in 719, early in the reign of her future husband, the Emperor Xuan Zong. In 733 when she was 14, she was given in marriage to the son of the Emperor. Four years later the Emperor’s favorite died and the Emperor was lonely -- so he took his son’s wife. First, to deflect any criticism he made her a Taoist nun for seven years, then in 745, after he gave his son another wife, he raised the 26 year old to a newly created rank in Imperial Consorts, calling her Kuifei, ‘Precious Queen’. Because Kuifei does not sound beautiful in English, we call her the “Lady Yang.”
Although the emperor had 3000 consorts to choose from, he lavished his attention only on the Lady Yang (so ivy grows upon the clothes hangers of the others).
One stanza in the Song of Everlasting Sorrow says:
Spring follows spring play, night completely night
which (in case you didn’t notice) means day and night sex.
The emperor was so taken with his love for his Precious Queen that he ignored affairs of state,
leading to disaster. The Lady Yang’s cousin was Counselor to the Emperor but appears to have been deficient in wisdom. He incited General An, a friend and supporter of the Emperor, to rebel. An’s forces drove the Emperor from the Capital. The Imperial Guard, incensed at the mess the cousin created, killed him and his family, and demanded that the Emperor kill the Lady Yang as well.
The Emperor tried to convince them to let her live but they insisted so he had someone else strangle her in another room. This plunged the Emperor into everlasting sorrow. But a Taoist sage pitied the emperor and offered to go into a trance and find his beloved. “He climbed to Heaven, entered the Earth, searching everywhere.” (Like Oda Mae Brown in the movie Ghost) Finally he found her on a magic island in the Eastern Sea. She told the Emperor through the medium that she still loved him, that she would love him forever. The medium was even able to bring back some mementos from her. Now we come to the final seven stanzas.
In the next three pages we explore the images of birds sharing wings and pine branches entwining as they travel from Bo Juyi in 8th century China to Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan, and then on to Basho in the 17th.
The Tale Of Genji opens with Lady Kiritsubo who becomes the Emperor’s favorite and bears him a son (we call him Genji, the name he later receives). The Emperor is so entranced with Kiritsubo that he ignores affairs of state, causing much disapproval within the court (recalling Xuan Zong and the Lady Yang).
Kiritsubo bears the brunt of the bad-mouthing by court ladies:
In spite of the gossip about her and the shame she feels, she manages to love the Emperor with all the gentleness and devotion in her heart. Maybe you will remember Basho’s verse when you ease your forearm under the sleeping head of one you adore.
Especially concerned about the Emperor’s love for Kiritsubo is the Kokiden Lady, the Emperor’s senior consort and the mother of the Heir Apparent, who is three years old when Genji is born. Genji is so remarkably bright in both looks and intelligence, and the Emperor obviously favors him over the older child, that there is talk that the Emperor might switch the succession to Genji. The Kokiden Lady, not so pleased with this, puts out such bad vibes that Kiritsubo sickens and dies, sending the Emperor into grief – and then on the night of Kiritsubo’s funeral, Kokiden insists on playing loud happy music on her harp far into the night. (Bitch!)
After the funeral the Emperor seeks some contact with his beloved. Xuan Zong used a Taoist sage to reach the Lady Yang on her magic island, but the Emperor in the Tale of Genji has a more practical approach: he sends a court lady named Myobu to visit Kiritsubo’s mother and bring back some of her things, but these bring the Emperor no solace. (Laura Mae says, “Poor Emperor!”)
Murasaki Shikibu has the Emperor lament:
The Emperor says Kiritsubo died because “such is life.” It was her destiny, not Kokiden’s fault nor his own fault for abandoning his first wife to play with a younger, sexier model, but the ‘fate she was born with, everlasting sorrow.
Now the images from the Song of Everlasting Sorrow reach Basho in A Narrow Path in the Heartlands:
If we read the three passages together, we see that Murasaki rewrote Bo-Juyi, and Basho rewrote both of them. Both Bo-Juyi and Murasaki use the images of wings and branches in the context of Emperors and consorts, special people, different from you and me. Basho democratizes the images, bringing them into the world of ordinary people. No matter who we are, no matter how beautiful we are or how sincerely we share our wings and entwine pur branches, all end up in the cemetery.
The 9th century poetess Ono no Komachi is said to be the most beautiful women Japan ever produced, so that any woman of exceptional beauty may be called a Komachi. Her name is synonymous with female beauty, yet also with “the vanity of a life spent indulging in romantic liaisons.”
Whew! What was she like when she did meet him? But Komachi grew old and lost her beauty and could no longer find someone to love her, even for a one night stand. So the name Komachi is also synonymous with the passage of youthful beauty into lonely decrepit old age. Her most famous poem, her poem in the Hundred Poets, Hundred Poems laments:
On the next page are three Basho images of this famed beauty.
Reduced to such poverty that she wandered the streets, a beggar in rags, her mind also wandering to insanity. Komachi’s dying request was that her corpse be left out to weather on the fields, and was then seen with stalks of plume grass growing wild through the eye sockets to the height of a woman.. Basho wrote:
Her beauty – as well as her sanity -- gone like a flash of lightning, Komachi ended up an unburied skull looking up at tall stalks with wispy plumes emerging from her eye-sockets
In the two tanka on the previous page she see how Komachi
went from having plenty of hot romances to none at all. She regrets the loss of those attributes which used to bring her love.