Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

1 - Kokan Shiren and the Problem of the Literary in Fourteenth-Century Japan

Friday, March 23
12:45 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: Coolidge, Mezzanine Level

The literary efflorescence in Japan's Zen monasteries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been characterized by historians as renewed veneration for continental ideas after a long period of relative cultural isolation. But even as temples centered around immigrant and returnee monks became prestigious artistic venues, the questions of the application of Yuan-Ming aesthetics in a different sociopolitical environment and their compatibility with established compositional forms was far from settled. The writings of the monk Kokan Shiren (1278-1346), a pivotal figure in the official legitimation of Zen in Japan, present a fraught grappling with the contradictory demands of literary form: Neo-Confucian advocacy for "ancient-style" directness, monastic and bureaucratic requirements for official documents in ornamental parallel prose, Buddhist condemnation of deceptive ornamentation (and Zen distrust of discursive truth more generally), and local canons of acceptable literary models.

This paper considers the ideological and practical negotiations that occurred in appropriating contemporary continental literature in Kamakura Japan by taking up both Kokan’s own compositions and the prescriptive aesthetics he propounded in critical discussions and guidebooks. Kokan repeatedly employs a curious logic of supplementarity in these writings, which finds its practical instantiation in his rhyme dictionary Shūbun inryaku (ca. 1307), reprinted repeatedly throughout the medieval period. While prior scholarship has tended to treat Kokan as a pioneer in the importation of Neo-Confucian thought to Japan, I argue that this embrace of woodblock publishing (under the influence of China's flourishing print culture) was far more significant to his writing and influence.

Brian Steininger

Princeton University, New Jersey


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1 - Kokan Shiren and the Problem of the Literary in Fourteenth-Century Japan

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