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Invoking the

Invoking the 'Righteous Spirit'

Brandeis University's Matthew Fraleigh explains how the 'shishi' passed on Chinese poetic traditions by reinventing the poem "The Song of the Righteous Spirit."

Kanshi cannot be properly appreciated if read as another type of waka, or Japanese poetry.


What united Japan's shishi, or "men of high purpose," was "an intensity of concern for the fate of the land and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for what they believed," explained Matthew Fraleigh. These samurai and scholars from various ranks in life were best known for their involvement in anti-shogunate and pro-imperialist causes in the mid-19th century. But Fraleigh, a professor of Japanese language and literature at Brandeis University, spoke to a UCLA audience about their accomplishments as composers of Chinese poetry. The Jan. 30, 2008, event was sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies

Immediately after the Tokugawa Shogunate officially ended in 1868, Japanese publishers became interested in the poetry of fallen samurai and produced a series of anthologies in 1868 and 1869. Among these were collections of kanshi, or Chinese-language poems written in Japan by Japanese poets. One famous kanshi was written by Saigo Takamori, the historical figure who provided inspiration for Ken Watanabe's role in The Last Samurai (2003).  Fraleigh read verses from Saigo's undated valedictory poem "Gyokusai" ("Shattered Jewel"), the title of which alludes to the Japanese euphemism for ritual suicide in the face of defeat. The poem is perhaps meant to be read as his farewell, a literary death stroke.    

At a time when Chinese was a standard subject in formal education, it was not unusual to write patriotic or political poems in Chinese rather than Japanese. Editors glossed "Gyokusai" and other kanshi to help readers who were less proficient in Chinese. However, Fraleigh said that kanshi cannot be properly appreciated if read as another type of waka, or Japanese poetry.    

To prove his point, Fraleigh pointed to the binational history of "The Song of the Righteous Spirit," originally composed in prison by Wen Tianxiang, the Chinese Prime Minister captured near the end of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE). Wen is still famous today for his loyalty and resistance to the Mongols invading China. The poem, originally popularized in Japan by the scholar Keizai, struck a chord with Japanese audiences and was often alluded to by Japanese poets during difficult times such as imprisonment. 

The renowned scholar and shishi Yoshida Shôin (1830–59) wrote his own version of "The Song of the Righteous Spirit," borrowing the poem's rhyme scheme, rhetorical structure, and reputation to lend credence to his own political message. Beginning with a comment on the "righteous spirit," Yoshida's poem continues with a list or "gallery" of historical figures who demonstrate "spirit" in an echo of Wen's list of exemplary Chinese historical figures. Yoshida fills his gallery with those he believes united Japan in the face of potential division in the past, bringing attention to the division he sees threatening Japan at the time of the poem's composition. 

The threat Yoshida perceived began in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry persuaded Japan to open its ports to Western nations, ending 200 years of isolationism. Subsequently the country divided between those willing to allow foreigners in and those who were not. Though Wen ended his poem with introspection, Yoshida broadens the conclusion to focus on the situation in Japan, asking his countrymen to resist foreign powers and be wary of invasion.

Yoshida died in 1859, nearly ten years before the Meiji Restoration. Later poets would refer to his work, making no mention of the Chinese original, in drawing upon the "righteous spirit." Fraleigh explained that scholars of the Meiji era were not required to study the Chinese classics.  While the inspiration for Yoshida's renowned piece was sometimes forgotten, the conventions and literary style were not. Elements such as the gallery continued to crop up in later pieces and play a part in Japanese poetic tradition.