Murasaki Shikibu is famous for writing what is considered to be the first ever novel and the greatest example of Japanese prose. Her epic story, The Tale of Genji has been read and studied around the world ever since she wrote it over a thousand years ago.
Born in the year 973 to the Fujiwara family, Murasaki had writing in her blood. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather had been well known poets in Japan, while her father was a respected scholar of Chinese classics and poetry.
At a young age she studied with her brother, and, unusually for a Japanese girl of the time, learned to read Chinese. The Chinese language was thought to be the language of men; rather insultingly, the idea was that women didn’t have the intelligence required to understand it! Instead women would read & write in an early form of Japanese known as Kana. However, thanks to her father’s interests Murasaki found she had a natural flair for the language. She later wrote in her diary;
“When my brother…was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'”
In 998 AD Murasaki was married, sadly her husband died only two years later. In 1005 she was sent to the Imperial court to serve as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shōshi.
It is likely that before she moved to the royal court she had already begun to write The Tale of Genji, which was to become her greatest masterpiece.
From about 1008 – 1010 Murasaki kept a diary; The Diary of Lady Murasaki. The details in her diary tell us what life was like in a royal court of the time, and occasionally give a deeper insight into Murasaki’s introverted nature. She enjoyed being alone, spending her time reading and writing. In one passage of her diary she wrote,
“Pretty yet shy, shrinking from sight, unsociable, fond of old tales, conceited, so wrapped up in poetry that other people hardly exist, spitefully looking down on the world – such is the unpleasant opinion that people have of me. Yet when they come to know me they say that I am strangely gentle, quite unlike what they had been led to believe. I know that people look down on me like some old outcast, but I have become accustomed to all this, and tell myself, ‘My nature is as it is.’”
Despite her tendency to keep herself to herself, she spent much time with the Empress Shōshi. In secret she began teaching the Empress the Chinese language – still a taboo for women to learn:
“Since last summer…very secretly, in odd moments when there happened to be no one about, I have been reading with Her Majesty…There has of course been no question of formal lessons…I have thought it best to say nothing about the matter to anybody.”
When Shōshi redecorated her room with a screen covered in Chinese symbols there was outrage in the palace!
The Tale of Genji is the work for which Murasaki Shikibu is now known around the world. Considered by many to be the first novel, and one of the greatest pieces of prose ever written, the book is a huge 54 chapters long and probably took her ten years to write!
The story is about the life of ‘the shining prince’ Genji. Many aspects of the book reflect life in an imperial court and probably come from Murasaki’s own experiences. Murasaki wrote the book in the ‘women’s language’ of Japanese, and the novel was originally intended for a female audience.
The tale was an immediate success, and it wasn’t long before copies were being made of the manuscript. Although the original scrolls no longer exist, copies from the early 12th century survived and form the basis of the many translations around the world today.
It wasn’t until 1933 that the full English translation was completed, which ran to six volumes!
The book has been the object of praise and study around the world ever since it was written. Murasaki Shikibu herself has been compared in significance to Austen, Proust and even Shakespeare!
Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata said that The Tale of Genji was “the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it.”
The remainder of Murasaki’s life is uncertain. It is thought that she retired away from the palace and probably died around 1014.
An interesting afternote to this story is that Murasaki Shikibu was not her actual name, but rather a nickname given to her in the palace. In Japan at that time girls’ names were not recorded in family records, so no-one knows her birth name. ‘Murasaki’ was actually a character from The Tale of Genji, and ‘Shikibu’ refers to her father’s job!
Find out more:
The Tale of Genji is still widely available to read. You can see a wide variety of links relating to the book here: http://www.taleofgenji.org/links.html
Fancy a trip to Japan? There is a Tale of Genji Museum you can visit: http://www.uji-genji.jp/en/
Here is a great online course with loads to find out about The Tale of Genji here: http://www.learner.org/courses/worldlit/the-tale-of-genji/
For more information about Murasaki’s life see this PDF: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1187655.files/D2-%20The%20Heian%20Age%20of%20Japan/murasaki.pdf
Check out our short video about Murasaki!