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Poems by the Kobunji school

Poems by the Kobunji school

To see what the works of the Writing in the Ancient Style School (Kobunji-ha) were like, let us look at a famous poem by Hattori Nankaku.

Old Book Fig.1 Collected Works of Master Nankaku, Kyōhō 12 (1727) edition
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It is titled ‘At night, streaming down the dark water’ and it is from the Collected Works of Master Nankaku in ten volumes and four parts which was published in Kyōhō 12 (1727). “Dark water” is a literary way to refer to the Sumida River in Edo (now Tokyo). The poem describes the scene as the boat on which the poet is floats down River Sumida at night.

At Night, Streaming Down the Dark Water

  Original “Chinese” (Japanese) Vernacular reading English translation
金龍山畔江月浮 Kinryū sanpan kōgetsu ukabu By “Gold Dragon Mountain,” the moon floats on the river
江揺月湧金龍流 yuragi tsuki wakite kinryū nagaru The moonlight on the trembling water, like a golden dragon gliding by
扁舟不住天如水 henshū todomarazu tensui no gotoshi The boat does not stop, as sky and water seem to merge
両岸秋風下二州 ryōgan no shūfū o kudaru Pushed by the autumn breeze, I head downstream.


The Sensōji temple in Tokyo was also known as Kinryūsan Sensōji (Sensōji on “Gold Dragon Mountain”). The moving reflection of the moon on the nearby River Sumida resembles a golden dragon frolicking beneath the surface. As the boat I am on floats down the river, it is hard to say where the sky ends and the water begins. Pushed by the autumn winds that sweep the banks, I slowly leave Musashino behind heading toward Shimōsa (Musashino and Shimōsa are the old county names for present-day Saitama and Chiba prefectures).


The poem conveys the beauty and charm of a cruise down the river under the light of the autumn moon, as a cool autumn breeze is blowing.

Particularly noteworthy here is Nankaku’s use of imagery and diction from the Tōshisen. The poem combines the lines “Like moonlight on the water, the water seems to join the sky” from “Writing my Feelings at the River Tower” by Zhao Gu, “As the gibbons cry incessantly on both shores / the feeble boat has already flowed past many peaks” from “Setting Off Early from Baidi” by Li Bai, and “I think of you but do not see you as I head to Yuzhou” from “Song in Praise of the Moon at Mt. Emei,” also by Li Bai.

By using imagery from Tang poems about the grand scenery of the Yangtze river to describe the River Sumida, Nankaku stretches time and space to become one with Li Bai.

In the fictional world of poetry, Nankaku is an actor impersonating Li Bai, and his “stage” was 18th-century Edo, now a large city rivalling London and Paris in size. Propelled by rapid economic growth in the second half of the 18th century, Edo surpassed Kyoto and Osaka as the cultural capital of the country and a new aesthetic code, that of the “Edokko” (the true Edoite), was rapidly taking shape. And the fashion for composing “Chinese” poems (kanshi) was an essential element of this new code.

© Keio University
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