The Name of Heian-kyou

May 17, 2011

The name “Heian-kyou” (平安京,  meaning “tranquility and peace capital”) was supposedly of popular origin, having the Emperor changed just the selected kanji; nevertheless most Japanese people in the following centuries didn’t  use that name and rather called it simly “Miyako” (京 or 都), which means “capital”, or “Kyou”, which is another reading of 京.  京 or 都, or sometimes 京師 were used in hstorical documents. “Kyoto” (京都) was eventually a combination of the two characters for “capital”, thereof the modern name.

There were several other Chinese-derived names used of the city. Among the most common were “Rakuyou”, abbreviated as “Raku”, a reading of the characters for Loyang, the name of the Eastern Capital of theT’ang dynasty as paired with the Western Capital at Ch’ang-an. Since the model for Heian was neither Loyang nor Ch’ang-an (as it has been erroneously argued), but
on the earlier Japanese capital at Fujiwara (which was inspired to Chien-k’ang), the use of the name might be surprising. But Japan had also known a period of dual capitals – this happened when in 809 Emperor Heizei after abdicating moved to Nara (aka Heizei-kyou) and started being known as “the Emperor of Nara”; although that period was over with the establishment of the capital at Nagaoka, the tradition was revived in terminology under the reign of Emperor Saga, when the literati started referring to the western half of the city (Ukyo) as Chdan (i.e., Ch’ang-an) and the eastern half as Rakuyo (Lo-yang). As the western half withered and failed and the eastern half became the heart of the capital, Rakuyo began to function as a name for the whole.

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