Poetry and diplomacy in early Heian Japan: the embassy of Wang Hyoryom from Parhae to the Konin Court.

Author:Morley, Brendan Arkell


Between the years 727 and 926, Japan maintained diplomatic relations with the northeast Asian state of Parhae. The relationship was a productive one, and it was reasonably bilateral: Japan sent thirteen official embassies to Parhae and Parhae sent thirty-four to Japan. These embassies were important vectors of high culture, as they invariably included skilled literati eager to display their erudition to foreign audiences. In this respect they contributed to the development and dissemination of an East Asian macroculture, membership in which was defined by a shared familiarity with the Chinese literary and intellectual tradition. This essay traces the history of one embassy in particular, dispatched from Parhae to the court of Emperor Saga in the year 814, and tailored adroitly by Parhae's King Hui to suit conditions on the archipelago as he understood them. In Japan, this was a time of extraordinary efflorescence in Chinese literary studies: in 814, the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry in Chinese (kanshi) was compiled, followed by another in 818, and a third in 827. Poetry in Chinese was not simply a gentlemanly accomplishment but an important literary medium, rising to such popularity that the age of Saga's salon has been seen in modern times as belonging to a veritable "dark age" of Japanese culture, a century-long period when vernacular literary media were overshadowed by Chinese forms such as the shi and the fu. (1) Though nearly all of the authors represented in Saga's imperial anthologies are Japanese, five poems by the leader of the 814 delegation, the renowned statesman and poet Wang Hyoryom are included in the second anthology, Bunka shureishu; taken alongside compositions by several of his Japanese contemporaries, they allow an edifying glimpse into the ways in which poetry figured in the diplomatic process. In all, eight poems known to have been composed by Parhae literati survive in Japanese collections, and a full six come from Wang Hyoryom's embassy. No other foreign embassy is better represented in classical Japanese sources, and none speaks with greater clarity to the particular nexus between diplomacy, Chinese poetry, and domestic politics that obtained in Japan during Emperor Saga's reign.

This essay has two primary goals, the first and most basic of which is to suggest in broad terms the importance of relations with Parhae to Japanese culture and court politics during the Nara (710-94) and early Heian (794-1185) periods. Sustained diplomatic contact with Parhae was beneficial to Japan in multiple and overlapping ways. Though costly to host and fete, embassies brought goods for trade or sale that were not available domestically, and they conveyed valuable information to the Japanese court regarding recent developments on the continent. This last contribution was made all the more significant by Japan's increasing diplomatic estrangement from China over the course of the ninth century. (2) Moreover, missions from Parhae were a continual source of cultural enrichment for Japanese elites looking to sample recent trends in Chinese poetry. Wang Hyoryom's embassy looms especially large in this regard, as one of the ambassador's verses appears to draw directly on the work of Bai Juyi (772-846), making it about as modern as a poem could be in 814. The second goal of the paper is to explicate the formal qualities of diplomatic verse through close readings of poems composed at various stages of the diplomatic encounter, beginning with the royal banquet held to welcome Ambassador Wang and his party to the capital city of Heian, and concluding with the delegation's return to Izumo, the coastal province from which they would make their eventual voyage home. While the phenomenon of poetic exchange between Parhae emissaries and their Japanese hosts has been widely noted, (3) this study seeks to augment existing scholarship by calling specific attention to the linguistic and thematic properties of individual verses and examining what those properties reveal about diplomacy, Japanese court politics, and the reception of Chinese poetry by Emperor Saga and his literary circle.


In the fall of 727, during the reign of Emperor Shomu 1Iie, the newly founded state of Parhae dispatched its first diplomatic mission to Japan. The mission was small, consisting of a single ship of twenty-four delegates led by Ambassador Ko Inui (IH--UE and Vice Ambassador Dok Chu. (41) Though ultimately successful in establishing relations with the Nara court, the voyage was marked initially by tragedy, as sixteen members of the party, including the ambassador and vice ambassador, were reportedly killed by Emishi tribesmen when their vessel made landfall in northern Honshu. (5) Yet despite the staggering loss of two-thirds of its original complement, the delegation pressed on, finally reaching the Japanese province of Dewa on the twenty-first day of the ninth month (October 10). (6)

At this point, leadership of the party had apparently fallen to a lower-ranking officer named Ko Chedok. He bore the title of suryong, which seems to have denoted a position of local municipal leadership in Parhae communities, though the precise meaning of the term remains the subject of much debate. (7) Three months later, Ko and his compatriots arrived in the capital city of Nara and were received at Shomu's court. (8) There they presented a formal communique or "state letter" (Hilt) from the ruler of Parhae, Tae Muye (r. 719-37), an ambitious sovereign also known to history by his royal appellation, King Mu. This document marked the beginning of a diplomatic relationship that would last for the next two hundred years. It is gracious towards the Nara imperium but not obsequious, and it appeals deftly to Japanese sensibilities in its invocation of Koguryo and Puyo, terms redolent of geopolitical antiquity in the Japanese historical imagination:

I, Muye, do respectfully address your majesty: Though mountains and rivers stand between our borders and our native lands are not the same, I have heard from afar of your virtuous polity and my admiration has grown ever stronger. It is my understanding that your majesty's Heavenly Court has received the mandate and laid the foundations of rule in the realm of Japan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (9) Prospering generation after generation, the glory of your polity extends a hundred ages beyond the time of your forefathers.

With due humility, I preside over a large state, and I have in my charge various frontier territories. (10) I have reclaimed lands once occupied by Koguryo, and I have preserved the old ways of the Puyo. Yet because you and I are separated by vast distances, with sea and rivers stretching endlessly between us, information has not flowed smoothly, and we remain cut off from news of each other's fortunes and misfortunes. Seeking to draw nearer your virtue and establish ties of support so as to fulfill the promise of our history, I have sent envoys to pursue the commencement of relations from this day forth.

I have respectfully dispatched twenty-four men, including the Nyongwon commandant Ko Inui; the commander of mobile forces for the Intrepid Garrison Dok Chu; and the adjunct commander Sa Hang, to give my missive to you and to offer as gifts three hundred sable furs. (11) Though these products of my country are poor, I offer them as an expression of my deep sincerity. Furs are by no means precious, and I am ashamed to think of the laughter such a trifling gift must provoke. (12) My resources are limited and there is no opportunity to meet face-to-face. But let us carry on communication periodically, cementing forever a relationship of trust and goodwill. (13)


It is generally accepted that King Mu's diplomatic overture was motivated principally by the desire to secure a strategic ally and trading partner. (14) Parhae's founder, Tae Choyong (King Ko, r. 699-718), was a former Koguryo general who rose to prominence as the leader of a multi-ethnic coalition based in what today are the Jilin and Liaoning regions of northeastern China. (15) For several years he resisted pressure from the Tang, finally declaring himself ruler of a new polity called Chinguk MS in 698. While the Tang leadership must have viewed these developments with apprehension, they also evidently perceived an opportunity to bring a peaceable end to friction on their eastern border. Opting for a strategy of political inclusion, they formally enfeoffed Choyong in 713 as "king" (1) of the Bohai (Parhae) Commandery and military commander of Huhan Prefecture. (16) Much of this territory covered areas that had formerly been part of Koguryo, and although the region was home to many different peoples, it was Koguryo's historical legacy that seems to have most strongly informed the sense of cultural identity shared by Parhae elites. (17) With Choyong's enfeoffment, the short-lived state of Chinguk came to an end; in its place stood the kingdom of Parhae, a minor satellite that did not possess formal statehood in the eyes of the Tang empire, but one that was determined nonetheless to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Nominal incorporation into the Chinese world order, however, did little to ameliorate the dangers the fledgling kingdom faced. Relations with Tang China and Malgal tribes to the north were difficult. Exacerbating the situation was the threat posed by the powerful kingdom of Silla, which bordered Parhae to the south. Choyong's eldest son and successor, the aforementioned Tae Muye, was not satisfied with what he viewed as a precarious status quo. He responded by sending ambitious military expeditions in both directions, reclaiming more territory of old Koguryo and gaining relative suzerainty over several Malgal tribes. (18) Like his father, Muye was a capable commander...

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