Let’s talk Heike Monogatari
Or called Tales of the Heike. But I prefer to say Heike Monogatari, as the word monogatari provides an extra dimension that tales fails to fully capture.
英文又翻做Tales of the Heike（平家故事）。但我喜歡稱Heike Monogatari, monogatari相較tale含意上更多一層次。
To begin, I read the English translation by Helen McCullough, which is written in more plain narrative than the original sung performance. A Chinese translation will no doubt retain more of its original colour, someday I hope to come across one.
The tale follows the rise and fall of the Taira clan (also called Heike, House of Hei, as Taira can be read as Hei), their ascent to power enough that eclipsed the throne, to their final destruction, the very last of their blood extinguished by their long time rival Genji clan (also called Minamoto).
The book consists of 3 phases. The gradual build up to the death of Kiyomori and of open warfare, the back and forth till the last battle at Dan-no-ura, and the last third where the remaining Heike meets their end. Within each are several chapters, each a collection of passages of various lengths, ranging from half a page to 5-6 pages. Some tightly follows, others loosely related, and some travels back in time to provide context to events or characters.
It’s an epic tale that not only depicts some of Japan’s most iconic historic characters and events, but more significantly for me, it illuminates the culture of the time when the tales are performed.
I started the book expecting it to be similar to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which I am well familiar with. Gradually I came to the opinion that perhaps the Water Margin is the more apt comparison, with a wider cast of characters, the focus on martial prowess. But even that is drawing a loose line, there is nothing in Water Margin akin to the expertly crafted short passages which while not adhering to one tight narrative nor structure, yet at same time harmoniously fits together thematically. Heike Monogatari is very much its own style, comparisons cannot be drawn easily.
What really struck me was not so much the tales and characters, but how much references to Chinese there are. The courtier would cite Confucian ideals, the three sovereigns and five emperors, and of the Emperors of Tang as precedent. Or draw analogies to Liu Ban and Xiang Yu, of Wang Man of Han, of the rebellion of An Lushan. There was even included an entire passage of the story of Jing Ke’s failed assassination of Shihuangdi of Qin.
I had always known Heian period was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, but never thought it to be to this degree. The book would have been an incredibly hard read for foreigners, not only having to face unfamiliar Japanese names and locations, but also characters and events of a place different than the one currently being read about. Infact, I wonder how much of the Chinese references will be understood by Japanese.
Given the incredible amount of Chinese references, it is surprising, and also unsurprisingly, that there aren’t any to the Three Kingdoms period. Probably the best known Chinese period in modern times thanks to the popularity of the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms in related media if not, sadly, the original book.
It makes sense of course, when one consider that Romance of the Three Kingdoms was not written until the Yuan-Ming period ~1300. And Heiki Monogatari had taken shape in some form in the Kamakura period, also around ~1300, likely predating the books. Without the Romance it was likely that the period did not hold enough influence to be considered iconic events to be referenced.
The book is interesting in that there are no protagonists to speak of. The Romance had the three brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, after their fall the lead was taken up by Zhuge Liang, then his protege Jiang Wei. And the Water Margin strictly followed the core heroes of the 108.
While Heike also passes focus from Kiyomori to Koremori, Yoshinaka and Yoshitsune, the narrative does not treat them as favourites. It does not paint the Taira nor the Genji as being in the right (as Romance does for Shu), nor wholly wrong. Even the imperial house under Go-Shirakawa could hardly be considered pillars of righteous virtues. The story is about them, but also not about them. It is this air of impartiality that differentiates it from the other novels.
As the monogatari begins in its very first sentence. The sound of the Gion bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.
The story can best be characterized by a fatalism of fate and fleeting nature of things. An almost tranquil, matter of fact stating. Rather than brought to cheer for or dislike any particular characters, one is led to pity and worry, for in defeat speckle of honour and bravery shines, and even in triumph an air of sorrow permeates.
Kiyomori, the tyrant of late Heian court. The narrative paints a dark image of the man, as a man full of anger and bereft of humble sense. His wanton acts led to the death of his son and hope of the people Shigemori. Without Shigemori’s restraint on his father, Kiyomori’s full fury is laid bare. His last dying words, instead of some longing for his family or retrospection of life, were ones wishing for death upon his adversaries.
The weight of his sins were carried by his sons. While they, too, were party to the Taira’s indulgences and cruel acts, towards the end I was moved to feel for their suffering. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers. Poets, musicians, scholars. People of qualities, courageous, skilled, masterful. Who amongst us is not human. Frail people caught up in the fortunes given.
And what of Yoshinaka? The Genji that first defeated and drove the Taira out of the capital? A masterful tactician whose sin was being an uncouth man from the countryside. The man fought to the end and died bravely with his brother Imai who killed himself by leaping off his horse with holding the sword in his mouth.
Or Yoshitsune? A small man who destroyed the Taira and brought order to the country, then driven to rebellion by his suspicious brother.
So many deserved death yet lived, so many deserved life yet died. Some are rewarded by their compassion, others died by the very those they spared. Some found peace before their ends in the buddha, others laughing as they went in storms of glory.
The world’s nature is one of fleeting beauty, life is but an illusive dream. The flowers of spring after a night’s rain carpets the earth. The red of autumn after a gust welts and scatters amidst the mountains and rivers. Such is the essence of Heike Monogatari.