Explore / Articles
Japan: Heian period (AD 794-1185)
Following the political and social problems of the preceding Nara period (710-794), Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806) named his new capital Heiankyō (now Kyoto), heian meaning 'peace and tranquillity'. The Heian period did see the flowering of courtly culture, centred on the emperor and nobility, in particular the powerful Fujiwara family, but it ended with the establishment of a military dictatorship.
With the decline of the Tang dynasty in the late ninth century, Japan greatly reduced contacts with China, and a characteristic native culture grew up centred on Heiankyō. The kana phonetic writing systems were created. These were widely used by women prose writers such as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote Genji monogatari ('The Tale of Genji') in the early eleventh century. New gentler styles of sculpture developed, as well as new painting style known as Yamato-e ('Japanese-style pictures'). They showed seasonal events and courtly pastimes. Many emakimono ('narrative handscrolls'), byōbu ('folding screens') and fusuma ('sliding doors') were produced.
At first Japan still functioned under the Chinese-style ritsuryō system, but around the mid-tenth century local officials began to seize lands for themselves, thus reducing central government income and control. Imperial authority was diminished by powerful retired emperors and by regents of the Fujiwara family ruling on behalf of child emperors. In the provinces, and later in Kyoto itself, warrior leaders with their samurai followers began to challenge each other for dominance. Finally, in the Heike wars of 1180-85, the Minamoto family defeated the Taira. Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99) established the Shogunate with its distinctive warrior culture. The Shogun ruled the country from Kamakura, while the emperors still reigned as figureheads in Kyoto.