Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014 AD) is the pen-name of a woman who wrote the world’s first novel, a major work of depth and meaning.
This psychological novel was The Tale of Genji, the story of a prince who was not sufficiently royal to ascend the throne.
The Four Female Virtues
Murasaki Shikibu was born in Kyoto. She was educated in Confucian classics which upheld the female virtues of morality, proper speech, a modest appearance, and diligent work.
She was probably a member of the noble Fujiwarer family, which maintained its position through marrying off its daughters to members of the royal family.
Shikibu married around 998 and gave birth to a daughter, but when her husband died around 1001, she entered court and became an attendant to the Empress Akibu. It was there she produced her first and finest work, The Tale of Genji, and it was likely the Empress saw Murasaki’s work in progress.
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The novel was written in Japanese kana language, which is phonetic. Most Japanese men at that time studied in Chinese, but only a few women were fortunate enough to be educated to that level.
Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji between 1000 and 1008 AD. There are two other works of note, The Diary of Lady Murasaki and Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. She was, in addition, an accomplished poet. The time in which she lived is known as the Heian period.
The Writing Genius of Murasaki Shikibu
This is an exceptional novel, containing all the required attributes of a sophisticated literary work: great content, complexity of plot, deep characterisation, meaningful outcomes and a resolution that is both satisfying and philosophical.
“The Tale of Marasaki Shikibu” in The Economist, explains that Prince Genji possessed everything (apart from sufficient royal blood) including “…brains, looks, charm, artistic talent and the love of well-born ladies.”
Genji reinvents himself as a powerful commoner and resorts to womanising at court, by working his way through illicit love affairs and scandalous intrigues. The women he consorts with never attain true happiness, but then, his seduction of the ladies is no more than political opportunism.
Murasaki Shikibu uses sophisticated writing techniques including irony, a technique Victorian novelist Jane Austen exploited some time later to great effect.
In an interview with The Economist, Haruo Shirane, professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University in New York, says, “The psychology of the characters is complex; the central drama is their eternal conflict.” Some literary experts compare Shikibu’s novel with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Like Proust’s work, The Tale of Genji explores memory and passing time.
The Woman Behind the Pseudonym
We only have fragments to inform us about Murasaki and her life and, as mentioned above, we are not even sure of the real name of the world’s first novelist. The first name we now use for the woman who wrote The Tale of Genji, “Murasaki” means a purple wisteria flower. Her second name, “Shikibu” describes her father’s position at court in the Bureau of Ceremony.
In one of her diaries, says The Economist, she speaks of herself as “pretty but shy, fond of old tales.”
The Inner World of Home
Shikibu’s writing seems even more extraordinary when we consider her background. Even as a high-born woman, she was still, in the end, merely a woman in times dominated by men.
Heian women lived in separate compounds from the men and could only talk to them through special screens known as kitcho screens. Unlike women in China, Heian women were allowed to own and inherit property, but their world was an inner world from which they rarely escaped, except perhaps to visit a court festival or take a pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple.
Amanda Foreman, writer and presenter of the BBC2 serial The Ascent of Women, explains in Episode 2, “Separation,” that Murasaki was responsible for the beginning of literature in Japan.
She says the, “…first flowering of Japanese literature was dominated by women, the most important of whom, in my opinion, was Murasaki Shikibu.”
The Economist says, “The modern novel was born at the Imperial Court of Japan.”
Literary Fiction at Court
How did Shikibu produce such a mature work? In The Tale of Genji, Shikibu draws on her own knowledge of court life. She emphasises the fragility of love, asking why there is suffering in the world. Shikibu allows her protagonist to discover and find solace in Buddhism which says that all life is suffering, just as Murasaki, in her personal isolation as a Japanese woman, discovers in her own life. She, too, resorts to Buddhism to reconcile the nature of suffering.
Amanda Foreman, in Separation, credits Japanese women, especially Murasaki Shikibu, with forging the cultural DNA of her country, a feat seldom achieved by women stuck in subordinate roles to those of men. There is an emotional scene in the programme when Foreman is shown an ancient inkwell, a fragile and delicate artefact, which was probably the one used by Murasaki to write her princely tale one thousand years ago. There is a catch in Foreman’s voice as she shares with the viewer how profoundly she is affected by this moment and its vital importance to women’s history.
The Legacy of Murasaki Shikibu
Besides being a much-revered role model for modern Japanese women, Murasaki Shikibu’s work has engendered a multitude of translations in a number of languages, films and CDs. A British scholar, Arthur Waley, published a version of The Tale of Genji through 1925 to 1933. “It was his limpid prose,” says The Economist, “that brought Genji to western readers as they re-examined Japanese culture after the second [W]orld [W]ar.”
Worldwide admiration for Murasaki Shikibu and her work is hardly surprising. Here is a small snippet from one of her diaries (In Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan):
“It is useless to talk with those who do not understand one and troublesome to talk with those who criticize from a feeling of superiority. Especially one-sided persons are troublesome. Few are accomplished in many arts and most cling narrowly to their own opinion.”
― Murasaki Shikibu, Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan.
Good advice – then and now!