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The Dao in Nara Literature

The Dao in Nara Literature

USC's David Bialock speaks about his research on Daoist influences in Japanese literature from the Nara period.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

Scholars filled the seats inside the UCLA Faculty Center's Hacienda Room on Dec. 4, 2006 to hear literary scholar David Bialock present a lecture, "Flying Dragons and Other Strange Happenings of a Daoist Sort at Mount Kazuraki," based on several chapters from his forthcoming Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike. The colloquium was sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. UCLA History Professor Herman Ooms introduced Bialock, who lives near the UCLA campus, to the audience.

Bialock, an associate professor of Japanese Literature at the University of Southern California, said that literary critics have only recently begun to appreciate how Japanese literature of the Nara period (AD 710 to 784) can be read from a Daoist perspective.

Scholars began speculating in the 1920s about the proposition that Daoist ideas appeared in the literature. The workings of the cosmic domain are explained in Daoism through the language and images of a Chinese cosmological system that scholars often refer to as "correlative cosmology." But those scholars considered the Daoist influence superficial—simply a case of literary borrowing.

Discoveries by archaeologists in the post-war period changed their views. Wall paintings that revealed knowledge of Chinese astrological thinking were found at Takamatsu Zuka Kofun and other burial mounds from the Nara period. Other evidence also led to the conclusion that Daoist-like practices influenced the rituals of the Japanese rulers of the time. Such discoveries "licensed" literary scholars "to go back and say, 'perhaps correlative cosmology should be taken more seriously,'" said Bialock at the talk.

"This new perspective challenges many of our received ideas about Nara period literature, which has tended to be read from a Shinto-Buddhist perspective," he added in an e-mail exchange with the Center. Pointing to examples from literature of the period, Bialock explained how certain texts could be interpreted as containing elements of Daoist thought.

Bialock's talk was the last colloquium of the 2006 calendar year. The series continues on Jan. 29 with Harvard University Japanese Literature Professor Adam L. Kern who will talk about his work: Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the KibyĂ´shi of Edo Japan.