Utsusemi

Utsusemi

How the other half dines

Outrage on the Chinese internet as it emerges that as dozens of Shanghai citizens were being stampeded to death on New Year’s Eve, local officials were nerby eating extravagant dinners for which they almost certainly didn’t pay.

As Shanghaiist puts it:

A ‘kaiseki ryori’ eatery called Kongchan has been identified as the restaurant by news portal dongping.com, which published a number of images showing the establishment’s lush interior.

The restaurant is owned by a district-linked company called the Huangpu International Business Corporation, according to the Sina report. When senior district officials eat here, all they need to do is to sign their name on the dotted line and the payment will be taken care of, the report added.

Details of the officials’ luxurious multi-course meal have been making waves on the web, and in the heat of China’s anti-extravagance campaign, has netizens questioning who paid for the pricy dishes.

In fact, the restaurant is called 空蝉, which is indeed pronounced ‘Kongchan’ in Chinese, and refers to the empty shells that cicadas leave behind them when they transform. But the name has a huge amount of background to it.

In Japanese it means the same thing, but is pronounced Utsusemi and is the name of a character in the Tale of Genji:

Utsusemi (空蝉/Cicada Shell/ Lady of the Locust Shell) – She is the wife of the Iyo Deputy and stepmother of the Governor of Kii. She attracts Genji’s attention, but resists his courtship despite his repeated attempts to win her over. Although she will not become a central character in the tale, Utsusemi is memorable as the first woman Genji court in the tale and whose courtship the readers actually witness and also, arguably, as the first to resist him.(chapters 2,3,4; reenters the tale in chapter 16; is mentioned again in chapter 23)

A lady of lower rank, after the death of her father she has no choice but to become the second wife of the Iyo Deputy, whose first wife is dead at the time of the narrative (Chapter 2 ‘Hahakigi’). She accidentally attracts Genji’s attention during one of his visits to the Governor of Kii’s mansion. Forced to avoid a directional taboo, young Genji leaves his father-in-law’s mansion at Sanjō and takes refuge to his retainer’s house. Ritual purification also forced the women of the Iyo Deputy’s household, Utsusemi included, to temporarily reside in the same place.

Having heard some feminine voices and the movements in an adjacent room, Genji becomes interested in the Governor’s step-mother, whom he already knew was young and potentially attractive. That very same night, Genji steals into the women’s quarters and under the guise of being a lady-in-waiting (Utsusemi is calling for Chūjō, which is both the sobriquet of her servant and Genji’s current rank of captain), he slips next to Utsusemi. Once the lady realizes who he really is, she is terrified and would like to call for help, were it not for her awareness that such a discovery would only bring her shame. Even so, she still rejects his advances and keeps strong despite his seductive words, until Genji, at a loss, can only think of taking her away to a more private location. As he carries her out of the room, he encounters the real Chūjō who is more than ready to defend her mistress against this unknown intruder until she too realizes who he is. Genji’s rank and status is simply too high for the two women to dare raise a commotion.

Once Genji secures Utsusemi’s location, he continues to pour out sweet words and promises, yet the lady ‘was as (…) the young bamboo: she bend but was not to be broken.’[9] Despite the textual description, many Genji critics read the incident as Genji’s success despite the lady’s resistance. Their interpretation lies heavily on one verb in the original, miru, which, although has multiple meanings, also refers to ‘making love, carnally knowing someone.’ Because of this one meaning among many, the traditional interpretation of the scene was that Genji does manage to break through Utsusemi’s defenses and ends up sleeping with her. Other critics however, most prominently Margaret Childs,[10] prefer to reject this interpretation as unfounded.

After the incident in question, Genji tries to see the lady two more times. The first time, she finds out about his arrival and takes refuge into another wing of the house, where she surrounds herself with her ladies-in-waiting. Frustrated, Genji ends up taking her younger brother to bed, as her replacement. This episode is considered the sole explicit example of homosexual relations in the tale.

The second time, Genji manages to get close to her and he even gets to spy on her playing go with her step-daughter, Nokiba no ogi. This kaimami (man spying on one or multiple women through a gap in the fence/ curtain/ screen) became a favorite screen among Genji artists and has been often illustrated as representation for chapter 3 “Utsusemi.”

After having spied on her, Genji, with the complicity of Utsusemi’s younger brother, Kogimi, steals into her chamber again. Aware of his presence, Utsusemi manages to escape from Genji’s embrace by discarding her outer robe like a cicada discards its shell (hence the chapter title). In her desire to escape him, the lady also abandons behind her sleeping step-daughter, who becomes Genji’s unwitting prey. Unwilling to admit defeat, or rather to sleep alone for the night, Genji makes do with what is left behind and ends sleeping with Nokiba no ogi, who does not even imagine she has been the victim of mistaken identity.

At the end of the fourth chapter, ‘Yugao’, Utsusemi leaves the capital with her husband who has been appointed governor of a province. Nokiba no ogi also gets married and leaves the narrative. Utsusemi returns in chapter sixteen, ‘Sekiya,’ when she meets Genji on her return from the provinces. They exchange poems, and Utsusemi is shown to regret not being able to accept Genji’s advances (because of Utsusemi’s marriage and differences in rank).

Last time the readers encounter Utsusemi is in chapter twenty-three, ‘Hatsune,’ where they learn that she has become a nun after her husband’s death. The reason behind her decision is her desire to escape the unwelcome amorous attentions of her step-son, the Governor of Kii. After taking the tonsure, Utsusemi comes to depend upon Genji and takes residence in his former home (his home before the building of the Rokujō-in), Nijō-in.

Outside of a literary context, however, 空蝉 refers to the impermanence of all things, and particularly human mortality. The Buddhist equivalent of ‘all flesh is grass’. As Jim Breen’s dictionary puts it: ‘the real world; temporal things’.

However, the word does not have a purely pejorative sense. It can also imply someone who successfully navigates the temporal pleasures that the world has to offer. Someone like Genji, for example.

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