Mori Ōgai and Gyogenki

Mori OgaiWhen I saw The Classics Circuit was having a tour on Meiji-Era Japanese Classics, I was intrigued. However apart from Natsume Sōseki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, I had a big WHO? moment. I had not heard the rest of the people on the list. One name did ring a bell, and I checked the books I got from Japanese Foundation Library and found that indeed there was one book of short stories collection by Mori Ōgai. Here was a good chance to participate.

Mori Ōgai (1862-1922) produced a wide range of works, from diaries, medical essays, aesthetics and literary criticism, to biographies, plays, Japanese and Chinese poetry, short stories, and novellas. He’s also a translator of contemporary European literature. In his final period of creative writing began in 1912, he turned to write almost exclusively in the genre of “historical literature”, which I guess what we often call now as historical fiction.

There are 10 short stories in the volume and after reading the short introduction for each story, I picked a piece called Gyogenki, a historical literature based on the Chinese Taoist nun and poetess Yü Hsüan-chi (I’m following the spelling in the book). Initially equally clueless about the great Chinese poetess as I was with Mori, I was intrigued by the brief summary of her life. She became a concubine of a wealthy man, got divorced, became a nun, had a lesbian relationship with another nun, then embraced a male lover, got insanely jealous over a maid, killed her, and was beheaded at the end. What a life!

Unfortunately the story felt pretty cut and dry, like reading a textbook. I can’t be sure if it’s the translation or not, but it didn’t make me want to continue reading the rest of the other stories in the book. Maybe I will eventually maybe I won’t, but I’m not rushing. I did enjoy reading the introduction about Mori at the beginning of the book and the short introductions for each of the short stories which honestly sound very interesting.

“Despite a lasting reputation in Japan, Mori Ōgai has yet to achieve any satisfactory reception in the West. Natsume Sōseki, the only writer of Ōgai’s generation to share his stature, has been widely translated and admired, but Ōgai remains a shadowy figure, austere, even obscure. It often happens, of course, that the work of certain writers cannot be sufficiently understood outside their own cultures. Some towering figures never earn anything like their rightful reputation through translation.” ~ The Historical Literature of Mori Ōgai: An Introduction

A bit sad. I guess there’s a reason why the book was withdrawn from Japanese Foundation Library. I know libraries usually withdraw books that have not been borrowed for a length of time. I’m glad I got to know a bit more about Mori-sensei and even tried his historical short fiction, even though I may not have “got it”. Who knows, maybe we’ll cross path again sometime in the future.

Meiji-era Japanese Classics

Check out the rest of the participants here. There are only a few of us this time!

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12 thoughts on “Mori Ōgai and Gyogenki”

  1. I, too, have read one short story from this man. I found his story a little difficult to read, maybe because I wasn’t quite used to the way it was written/translated. Maybe because it’s such an old text, the original form might have been in super-formal Japanese.

    But then, I guess in a way, it’s good to get *some* exposure to the classics that aren’t in English. =)

    1. Michelle, you’re right, it must be really hard to translate an old formal Japanese text to modern English! Wonder if that’s possible at all. But it works for Natsume Soseki (they’re from the same era). I guess his works are more “English-translatable” :P

    1. Rebecca, it’s a shame really. Here’s hoping for a better translation in the future? Glad that I gave it a chance though. Thanks so much for hosting!

  2. I just read an posted on a story by this author from 1915-I did not f0ind it dry all-it is about slavers in Japan-“Sansho the Steward”-the main exposition, development and drama of the story are very strong-the ending is a bit weak

    I linked to your excellent post in mine-

    1. Mel, thanks for the link! Sounds like you had a better story choice than mine, or maybe it’s just me that did not get him.

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