Plucking Chrysanthemums is a critical study of the life and works of Narushima Ryūhoku (1837–1884): Confucian scholar, world traveler, pioneering journalist, and irrepressible satirist. A major figure on the nineteenth-century Japanese cultural scene, Ryūhoku wrote works that were deeply rooted in classical Sinitic literary traditions. Sinitic poetry and prose enjoyed a central and prestigious place in Japan for nearly all of its history, and the act of composing it continued to offer modern Japanese literary figures the chance to incorporate themselves into a written tradition that transcended national borders. Adopting Ryūhoku’s multifarious invocations of Six Dynasties poet Tao Yuanming as an organizing motif, Matthew Fraleigh traces the disparate ways in which Ryūhoku drew upon the Sinitic textual heritage over the course of his career. The classical figure of this famed Chinese poet and the Sinitic tradition as a whole constituted a referential repository to be shaped, shifted, and variously spun to meet the emerging circumstances of the writer as well as his expressive aims. Plucking Chrysanthemums is the first book-length study of Ryūhoku in a Western language and also one of the first Western-language monographs to examine Sinitic poetry and prose (kanshibun) composition in modern Japan.
Japan’s preeminent poet and social critic in the two decades leading up to the advent of the modern novel, Narushima Ryūhoku is today sadly relegated to the backwaters of literary history. Fraleigh’s beautifully written and precisely documented history of the writer’s turn from samurai to official ‘field’ journalist leads the reader to consider how literary discourses would come, albeit briefly, to inform the political and economic realities of late nineteenth-century Japan. Highly recommended for all students of classical and modern Asian culture.
Just as Narushima Ryūhoku was one of the preeminent writers of his era in the realm of Sinitic Japanese literature (kanshibun), so has his biographer Matthew Fraleigh become a leader among the growing number of scholars working to revive this once vibrant literary space. Plucking Chrysanthemums and its companion work, New Chronicles of Yanagibashi and Diary of a Journey to the West, at once compellingly elucidate kanshibun texts and vividly describe the culture in which they were created and received.
With Matthew Fraleigh’s new book, a great oversight in the tale of Japan’s early road to modernity is now finally being remedied. His study demonstrates the importance of kanbun as a written language of nineteenth-century modernization and drives home the forgotten truth that, if we wish to grasp more fully the mindsets of Japanese caught in the transition toward the modern age, we must also read the vast output of Sinitic poetry and prose of the Meiji period. Narushima Ryūhoku is indeed an emblematic figure in this process.
A work of enormous erudition that brings to readers in vivid detail the remarkable and varied life of this significant but often neglected figure of Japan’s late nineteenth century. Ryūhoku’s life, and Fraleigh’s recounting of that life, suggest the rich complexity of this period.
- 498 pages
- 7 x 10 inches
- Harvard University Asia Center
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