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The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  584 Ratings  ·  53 Reviews
A detailed study of the Japanese Heian period (c. AD 950-1050), and court life in Ancient Japan, where the elite were highly cultured and acutely aware of the aesthetic.
Paperback, 348 pages
Published December 20th 1979 by Penguin Books (first published 1964)
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I got interested in 10th and 11th century Japan after reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The poetry! The mid-night romantic rendezvous! The snarky gossip! I had to learn more and Ivan Morris’ short social history was the perfect way to add to my knowledge.

It was compulsive reading. The royalty of the Heian imperial court were seriously weird—and not just because the women painted their faces chalk white and their teeth black.

“There were many occasions in daily life -- a visit to the countr
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
NOTE: If you haven't yet read "The Tale Of Genji", this book has plenty of spoilers for that - so you might wait until you've read if you hate being spoiled.

If you've read the book about, the author's diar, Sei Shonagon's "The Pillow Book" and Lady Sarashina's "As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams", this one is a good companion to that, giving us a picture of that world, the middle part of the Heian era, though focusing mostly on the world of the court and upper class of the capital, nowadays known a
Aug 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: japan, heian-culture
Like many other cultural stereotypes, I associate so many negative characteristics with the Gaijin. The younger version - one that I've become all too familiar with living in Portland - is the manga-crazed-sorta-goth-teen, who just adores Japanese popular culture. I have so many issues with this type, that I just wouldn't even know where to begin. There is the overzealous foodie, who, so enamored with asian cuisine, will immerse themselves deeply in the culture just for a chance to eat more exot ...more
Apr 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, japan
Reading “The World of the Shining Prince” by Ivan Morris was definitely illuminating since its readers would better understand the world of Prince Genji, the prince in question, as portrayed by Murasaki Shikubu in her classic “The Tale of Genji” set in Japan’s Heian Period in the tenth century. Indeed, this “standard in cultural studies for nearly thirty years” (back cover) should be a must to those going to read, reading or having read the classic; one of the reasons is that this formidable boo ...more
Jun 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"The Tale of Genji" strikes me as one of the most difficult of the classics and not just because of its length. That heightened sensitivity to colors, seasons, and aromas, the emphasis on personal beauty (and the cruelty visited upon those who do not enjoy it), the endless writing of poems that seem like slight adjustments to existing ones, and the endless romance, pining away and gossip--this was a past in which people did things (to the extent that they did do things) very differently. Yet I c ...more
When I was giving up on Genji I read a review that said this was essential co-reading. Now that I’ve read it I feel ready to tackle Lady Murasaki again, with more understanding.

This is about a 3.75, so perhaps I should give it a 4. Morris devotes a chapter to each of several cultural topics that illuminate the daily life of the Japanese upper crust of the tenth century: religion, superstition, the cult of beauty and the poignant, politics, class, relations between women and men. Well written.
Dec 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the most beautifully written work of non-fiction that I have ever read. The perfect companion to "The Tale Of Genji". This work explains much of the Heian period that Genji was created from and puts into context this and other writings of the time in Japan. I learned a great deal about the era and the culture of ancient Japan. Love this book!
Justin Evans
There are lots of positive reviews of this on GR, so allow me to present the view for the prosecution. Morris's book is occasionally interesting, but there's very little here that you can't get better from reading the introductions and notes to the various Heian diaries, as well as the diaries themselves. Shining Prince is also a real period piece. It was first published in 1964, and reads like it was first published in some mythical 1954 when White People (other than Ivan Morris, of course) tho ...more
Merrill Mason
Feb 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: travelers to Japan
Shelves: favorites
I read this before a trip to Japan to work on an art exhibition in Nara, the 8th century capital. It was the perfect preparation.
Jul 26, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Just to tell people up front this is an academic writing so it does have a lot of footnotes (which is cool) and if you haven't read or are not planning on reading The Tale of Genji then it will be hard to get into. With that said, I have to to say that it is a very informative book about the society and culture that influenced the writing of Genji. It is a little dated ( I believe fro the 60's) but only in the rare case could you really ever tell. Much of whats in here I had learned from Japanes ...more
May 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is probably one of the most beautifully written history books I've ever read. An excellent explanation of the world of Heian Japan which I would really recommend to anyone who wants to read The Tale of Genji. This book certainly makes it easier to imagine Genji's world and explains many aspects and customs of the 10th century Japan that Western readers find so difficult to understand. And, surprisingly, Morris manages to do it in an intelligible and friendly manner without adhering himself ...more
Mar 14, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this book fascinating. It describes Japan of the era portrayed in the Tale of Genji, long before samurai, geisha, sushi, and ninja made their appearance. This book provided me with a window into a completely alien and mysterious world.
Brian Wilkerson
Aug 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The World of the Shining Prince" is a book I kept from a college class. It was a history course about the Far East. Between all the reading assignments, I didn't have time to read all of it (or even most of it) so I kept it. Only recently did I finish it.

This is a broad look at the Heian Era of Japan, and specifically, the court life at the capital. It covers many subjects from the structure and function of the government, religion, literary culture, taboos and superstitions, relations betwee
Clarissa Feio
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the 2 favourite books of my grandmother’s childhood friend, Luisa, who taught Chinese and Japanese for a living. She gave me this book as a present when I was a teenager, and up to the last years of her life she always spoke about this book. I would never have read this book if it were not for her. This was the second time I read it, and once again I could not put it down. The writer does a wonderful job at making this book engaging and interesting, with a coherent analysis of a ...more
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Japanese Literature enthusiasts, history lovers.
An excellent window into the circumstances surrounding the Tale of Genji, as well as insight and information regarding the historical and societal context of the novel.

While I wouldn't consider this a must read for most people, it would certainly be indispensable to those reading the Tale of Genji without the accompanying knowledge of Heian Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a refresher as well, it having been well over a decade since I spent time in Japanese History and Literature classes.

I wo
If you can look past the author's Western biases and old-fashioned language, this is a useful tool that can help you understand the complicated and courtly world in which Genji, the Shining Lord of the world's oldest extant novel, The Tale of Genji, lived.
Mar 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An indispensable companion to the Tale of Genji.
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
A useful book for those who want to read Heian Japanese classics with something like understanding, but it's worth bearing in mind that Ivan Morris was born in Britain in 1925 and spent his life teaching Japanese literature at the university level; this of course informs his discourse, as they say in literature classes. His personal prejudices show at every turn--oddly, in spite of a lifetime studying the period, he doesn't seem to like the Heian aristocracy much, except as a way to point up how ...more
Mary Catelli
The "Shining Prince" of the title is in fact a fictional character -- Prince Genji of the Tale of Genji -- because this might also be subtitled the setting of that novel, written by a court lady in Heian Japan, about the court of Heian Japan. Indeed, the last two chapters concentrate on that momementual work. Before then, however, it provides the court life it was set in -- mining both it and the contemporary Pillow Book, also by a court lady, for information.

Starting with how the misfortunes, b
Oct 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If anyone would have told me even a month ago that not only would I be reading a book on Japanese aristocrats in the 10-12 century but be enthralled by it, I would have declared them mad. This is an amazing book with few flaws and many strengths, students of Japanese history, cultural studies, literature or those interested in discovering a world as alien to us as could possibly be will adore this book.

A book like this stands or falls trough selection and use of source material and this the aut
Apr 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my most favorite books. I read it years ago before I had read The Tale of Genji. I was already interested in the Heian period and this was definitely a good place to fill in many of the blanks I had when the internet wasn't as filled out as it is today. I now wish for more, but I don't think that there are any similar, better books on the subject in English (please make recommendations if you can think of any!). I have practically memorized the book, so I don't refer to it much now as I r ...more
Ari Eris
Jun 20, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is just as good as everyone says it is. The Heian Japanese were a fascinating bunch (I fell in love with them in college) and Morris' book does a wonderful job of describing their unique little world. Using The Tale of Genji as a sort of cultural tour guide, along with other classics like The Pillow Book and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in 11th-Century Japan (all highly recommended), he discusses the political, cultural, and religious life of the court in a ...more
Juniper Shore
Jun 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I first read this book in a history course, and I liked it so much I kept it in spite of the outrageous cost from the campus bookstore. It blends so many things I love: history, literature, and art. Plus, it has the exotic appeal of ancient Japan.

The World of the Shining Prince isn't a straightforward history book, in the sense that it narrates a series of events. It's more of a snapshot of a single lifetime. It describes the court of the Heian emperor at the height of classical Japan, with clos
Aug 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Morris' book on Heian period Japan lies somewhere between scholarly and broad interest, it's academic without getting overly dry, as can sometimes be the case. I don't think you can read it without reading the 'Tale of Genji' however. He makes an attempt to explain the passages and how they relate, but if you haven't read the Tales you will be lost in 'The world of The Shining Prince', and you should probably have read the "Pillow Book" as well, he references both casually, and it's assumed you ...more
Nov 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4.5 I really enjoyed this one. It does show its age a little bit, but it isn't an issue (also, the excellent introduction by Barbara Ruch puts things into context).

There are two sides to the greatness of this book. First, Heian Japan is just so fascinating. Although I know, rationally, that there must be people who are not interested in this period of early Japanese history, I cannot really understand or imagine such persons. Second, Morris is an excellent populariser. His style is easy to foll
Ad Blankestijn
Feb 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Second time to read this excellent book. Not an academic study, but an introduction to the Japan from around the year 1000, when an elegant and artistic court culture blossomed (one of the few bright spots - beside China - in a world which at that time was almost bereft of culture). This court culture is the subject of Japan's first novel (and the world's first psychological novel), "The Tale of Genji," and Morris' book provides an excellent background to the novel and an introduction to various ...more
Jan 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: asia
Useful and remarkably readable companion to The Tale of Genji:
"What does seem peculiar is the great concern of Japanese scholars with the question of why The Tale of Genji was written. Early commentators insisted on religious or moral motives. According to one theory, Murasaki undertook her great work as a penance for having written some poem that offended the Buddha. In the Kamakura period, by an interesting historical mutation to read the labyrinthine text of The Tale of Genji came to be rega
Sep 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: readers interested in Japanese history
A study of the world of Heian Japan--a time before haiku, samurai, sushi and everything else Japan is known for--using The Tale of Genji and other literary works of the period as source material.

Very accessible to the general reader and very informative. It sheds light on some of the more bizarre (to the modern reader) conventions of the period. Made me want to read Genji again (in a different translation), a mere five months after I completed my first reading; and to be fair, reading Genji firs
Feb 29, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating and really well written book about court life in 10th century Japan, when there was no Noh or Kabuki theater yet, no haiku, no ukiyo-e, no tea ceremony, no samurai, no geisha, no tatami mats, no sushi, not even soy sauce. None of the things which we think of as quintessentially Japanese existed in the "world of the shining prince." It doesn't mean it was a cultural vacuum. Far from it. It was a world of refined, even effete, sensibilities and elaborate etiquette, where one's handwrit ...more
Jan 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating topic but really not a very enjoyable read.

Maybe I'm accustomed to a different and more modern kind of social historical writing. The author's language is terribly condescending about the culture he is writing about. For example, in the section on Heiian standards, he uses the word ' bizarre' three times in a page and a half. The fashion of tooth-blackening by high court ladies may seem odd to Western sensibilities, but describing it as a 'bizarre custom' lends a disparagin
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Ivan Ira Esme Morris (29 November 1925 – 19 July 1976) was a British author and teacher in the field of Japanese Studies.

Ivan Morris was born in London, of mixed American and Swedish parentage, to Ira Victor Morris and Edita Morris. He studied at Gordonstoun, before graduating from Phillips Academy. He began his study of Japanese language and culture at Harvard University, where he received a BA.
More about Ivan Morris...

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