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Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics$
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Wm. Theodore de Bary

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153973

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153973.001.0001

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The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike

(p.248) 19 The Tale of the Heike
Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics

Paul Varley

Columbia University Press

This chapter discusses The Tale of the Heike, which recounts the rise and fall of the warrior house of Taira (or Heike) in Japan in the late twelfth century, culminating in the Gempei War of 1180–1185 fought by the Taira against the Minamoto (or Genji). Although usually categorized as a war tale, the Heike deals with much more than just warriors and their battles. It is a rich evocation of life in Japan during the tumultuous period of transition from ancient to medieval times, focusing primarily on the affairs of the courtier and warrior aristocrats who were the principal actors of the age. The war tales as a literary genre are loosely structured and episodic. But the Heike, virtually alone among them, also possesses narrative unity because of its powerful and consistently maintained theme of the decline and destruction of the Taira. This sad, ultimately pathetic story must be seen against prevailing attitudes in Japan—at least at the aristocratic level of society—during the years that ushered in medieval times, which brought the warrior or samurai class to national leadership after a long period of growth in the provinces.

Keywords:   Asian classics, classic texts, war tales, Taira, Gempei War, warrior house, Japan

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