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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Heian Period (794–1185)

The new capital was established in Heiankyō (“Capital of Peace and Tranquility,” now known as Kyoto) in 794. Like Nara, it was laid out according to a grid pattern, following the Chinese precedent. Kyoto remained the nation’s capital, albeit at times in name only, until 1867.

In Kyoto, the court enjoyed a relatively long period of peace and political strength lasting nearly 400 years, until 1185. One of the most influential groups of the Heian era was the aristocratic Fujiwara family. The Fujiwaras succeeded in dominating the royal family by marrying female clan members to emperors and then ruling on behalf of the offspring of these unions when they assumed the throne. Not only did the powerful aristocratic Fujiwaras control the politics of this era, but they also dominated the cultural milieu. Fujiwara courtiers encouraged an aura of courtly sophistication and sensitivity in all of their activities, including the visual and literary arts, and even religious practice. This refined sensibility and interest in the arts is clearly expressed in the literary classic The Tale of Genji, written by a member of the Fujiwara clan.

After absorbing so much from the continent over several centuries, the Japanese began to experience a growing sense of self-confidence and appreciation of their own land and heritage. Although trade expeditions and Buddhist pilgrims continued to travel between Japan and the continent, the court decided to terminate official relations with China. Among the important cultural developments of this time of internal cultural concentration were the kana script, which facilitated the writing of Japanese; the cultivation of waka poetry and other distinctive literary forms, for instance, narrative tales (monogatari) and diaries (nikki); and a characteristically Japanese painting style, yamato-e. Yamato-e was used to depict native scenes or illustrate native literature, in contrast to kara-e, or Chinese-style, painting, which was used for scenery and tales of China. Since few examples of yamato-e painted before the mid-twelfth century survive, it is difficult to determine the early stylistic differences between yamato-e and kara-e. Documents indicate, however, that Kyoto residents were deeply moved by the subtle seasonal changes that colored the hills and mountains surrounding them and regulated the patterns of daily life.

By the second half of the twelfth century, domination by the Fujiwaras had waned, and political power had shifted from the nobility in Kyoto to military landowners in the provinces. In 1185, one of two powerful warrior clans, the Genji, defeated their chief rivals, the Heike, and succeeded in establishing in Kamakura a government controlled for the first time in history by military generals, or shoguns.