Genjii’s Tale and a Royal Concubine’s Tragedy

By Tim Hazell

“My life is dyed with sorrows of several hues. Pray tell me which is the hue of the part we share.” – Murasaki Shikibu

Japan evolved rapidly after legendary Emperor Jimmu founded the first dynasty in 660 B.C. marking the consolidation of Japanese society and style. It is home to the first novel in any language, one of the greatest ever written. The fifty four chapters of “The Tale of Genjii,” were composed in the 11th century by a woman of position from a branch of Fujiwara aristocracy who wrote under the pen name Murasaki Shikibu. It recounts the story of Prince Genjii’s early life and adventures. More than his romances and search for wisdom, the book is a journey into the sounds, manners, and morals of the Heian period. Genjii picks up a seven-stringed koto and the tentative notes of the instrument release the past in this excerpt.

“Genjii played on in a reverie, a flood of memories of concerts over the years, of this gentleman and that lady on the flute and koto, of voices raised in song, of times when he and they had been the center of attention, recipients of praise and favors from the emperor himself. Even the most ordinary music can seem remarkable if the time and place are right; and here on the wide seacoast, open far into the distance, the groves seemed to come alive in colors richer than the bloom of spring or the change of autumn, and the calls of the water rails were as if they were pounding on the door and demanding to be admitted.” – translated by Edward J. Seidensticker.

China and Japan are inextricably linked together. China’s older culture and aesthetics reflect deep refinement and awareness of beauty. This vast and ancient land with its cloistered emperors and teeming population dominated oriental philosophy, art, and letters for thousands of years. The Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-905) opened new directions in Chinese literature. One of its prominent women, Empress Yang Kwei-Fei (719-756), author and consort of Emperor Xuangzong, led a life of intrigue and ultimate betrayal at the hands of the country’s Imperial army. In the wake of the Anshi Rebellion, soldiers accompanying the royal entourage who believed that she was responsible for China’s upheaval demanded her death. Yang Kwei-Fei hanged herself rather than surrender to the army. Her talents and fame were marred by alcoholism. She is remembered today in poems like the following verse by Po Chu-Yi (772-846) and one of her favorite recipes, Royal Concubine Chicken.

Royal Concubine Chicken

(Tender chicken with ginger cooked in a casserole)

- Serves 4

1 chicken, about 3 pounds

4 slices ginger root

1 medium onion

2 tablespoons soy sauce

pepper to taste

2 stalks spring onions

oil for frying

2-1/2 cups chicken stock

3 level teaspoons salt

3-1/2 cups white wine

Chop ginger and onion coarsely and place in a bowl. Add soy sauce and pepper to taste. Stir to blend the ingredients, then rub the chicken inside and out with the mixture. Leave for three to four hours to season. Cut the spring onions into ½-inch pieces. Bring a large pan of water to a boil. Drain the chicken, reserving the ginger onion coating, and brown in hot oil for 7 to 8 minutes. Immediately immerse the chicken in the boiling water to remove all the grease. Remove the chicken straight away, place in a casserole and pour in the stock. Add the remaining ginger onion mixture, spring onions and salt, sprinkling them over the chicken. Bring to the boil, cover the casserole and transfer it to a moderately hot oven (190 C, 375 F) and cook for 45 minutes. Skim the surface of the liquid to remove all fat and impurities. Turn the bird over, put the casserole back in the oven and cook a further 30 minutes. Skim again, add the wine and place the casserole in the oven for a final 45 minutes. Serve in the casserole.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow
China’s Emperor yearning, for beauty that shakes a kingdom,
Reigned for many years, searching but not finding,
Until a child of the Yang, hardly yet grown,
Raised in the inner chamber, unseen by anybody,
But with heavenly graces that could not be hidden,
Was chosen one day for the Imperial household.
If she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell,
Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing.

This dish was renamed after Yang Kwei-Fei and is also called ‘Drunken Chicken.’ It tastes strongly of wine but is pure in flavor and very tender, symbolizing her personality and tragic life.


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