MURASAKI SHIKIBU (紫 式部, English: Lady Murasaki; c. 973 or 978
– c. 1014 or 1031) was a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting
at the Imperial court during the
Heian women were traditionally excluded from learning Chinese , the
written language of government, but Murasaki, raised in her erudite
father's household, showed a precocious aptitude for the Chinese
classics and managed to acquire fluency. She married in her mid-to
late twenties and gave birth to a daughter before her husband died,
two years after they were married. It is uncertain when she began to
write The Tale of Genji, but it was probably while she was married or
shortly after she was widowed. In about 1005,
Murasaki was invited to
serve as a lady-in-waiting to
Murasaki wrote The Diary of Lady Murasaki , a volume of poetry, and The Tale of Genji. Within a decade of its completion, Genji was distributed throughout the provinces; within a century it was recognized as a classic of Japanese literature and had become a subject of scholarly criticism. Early in the 20th century her work was translated; a six-volume English translation was completed in 1933. Scholars continue to recognize the importance of her work, which reflects Heian court society at its peak. Since the 13th century her works have been illustrated by Japanese artists and well-known ukiyo-e woodblock masters.
* 1 Early life * 2 Marriage
* 3 Court life
* 3.1 Rival courts and women poets * 3.2 "The Lady of the Chronicles"
* 4 Later life and death
* 5 Works
* 5.1 Diary and poetry
The Tale of Genji
* 6 Legacy * 7 Gallery * 8 References * 9 Sources * 10 External links
Murasaki Shikibu was born c. 973 in
Despite the loss of status, the family had a reputation among the
literati through Murasaki's paternal great-grandfather and
grandfather, both of whom were well-known poets. Her
great-grandfather, Fujiwara no Kanesuke, had fifty-six poems included
in thirteen of the Twenty-one Imperial Anthologies , the Collections
of Thirty-six Poets and the
Yamato Monogatari (Tales of Yamato). Her
great-grandfather and grandfather both had been friendly with Ki no
Tsurayuki , who became notable for popularizing verse written in
Japanese. Her father,
Fujiwara no Tametoki , attended the State
Daigaku-ryō ) and became a well-respected scholar of
Chinese classics and poetry; his own verse was anthologized. He
entered public service around 968 as a minor official and was given a
governorship in 996. He stayed in service until about 1018.
Murasaki's mother was descended from the same branch of northern
Fujiwara as Tametoki. The couple had three children, a son and two
daughters. Designated one of the One Hundred Poets ,
shown dressed in a violet kimono , the color associated with her name,
In the Heian era the use of names, insofar as they were recorded, did
not follow a modern pattern. A court lady, as well as being known by
the title of her own position, if any, took a name referring to the
rank or title of a male relative. Thus "Shikibu" is not a modern
surname, but refers to
In Heian-era Japan, husbands and wives kept separate households; children were raised with their mothers, although the patrilineal system was still followed. Murasaki was unconventional because she lived in her father's household, most likely on Teramachi Street in Kyoto, with her younger brother Nobunori. Their mother died, perhaps in childbirth, when the children were quite young. Murasaki had at least three half-siblings raised with their mothers; she was very close to one sister who died in her twenties.
Murasaki was born at a period when Japan was becoming more isolated, after missions to China had ended and a stronger national culture was emerging. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Japanese gradually became a written language through the development of kana , a syllabary based on abbreviations of Chinese characters. In Murasaki's lifetime men continued to write in Chinese , the language of government, but kana became the written language of noblewomen, setting the foundation for unique forms of Japanese literature .
Chinese was taught to Murasaki's brother as preparation for a career in government, and during her childhood, living in her father's household, she learned and became proficient in classical Chinese . In her diary she wrote, "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!'" With her brother she studied Chinese literature , and she probably also received instruction in more traditional subjects such as music, calligraphy and Japanese poetry . Murasaki's education was unorthodox. Louis Perez explains in The History of Japan that "Women ... were thought to be incapable of real intelligence and therefore were not educated in Chinese." Murasaki was aware that others saw her as "pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous and scornful". Asian literature scholar Thomas Inge believes she had "a forceful personality that seldom won her friends".
Aristocratic Heian women lived restricted and secluded lives, allowed to speak to men only when they were close relatives or household members. Murasaki's autobiographical poetry shows that she socialized with women but had limited contact with men other than her father and brother; she often exchanged poetry with women but never with men. Unlike most noblewomen of her status, she did not marry on reaching puberty; instead she stayed in her father's household until her mid-twenties or perhaps even to her early thirties.
In 996 when her father was posted to a four-year governorship in
Echizen Province ,
Murasaki went with him, although it was uncommon
for a noblewoman of the period to travel such a distance on a trip
that could take as long as five days. She returned to Kyoto, probably
in 998, to marry her father's friend Fujiwara no Nobutaka (c. 950 –
c. 1001), a much older second cousin. Descended from the same branch
of the Fujiwara clan, he was a court functionary and bureaucrat at the
Ministry of Ceremonials, with a reputation for dressing extravagantly
and as a talented dancer. In his late forties at the time of their
marriage, he had multiple households with an unknown number of wives
and offspring. Gregarious and well known at court, he was involved in
numerous romantic relationships that may have continued after his
marriage to Murasaki. As was customary, she would have remained in
her father's household where her husband would have visited her.
Nobutaka had been granted more than one governorship, and by the time
of his marriage to
Murasaki he was probably quite wealthy. Accounts of
their marriage vary:
Richard Bowring writes that the marriage was
Japanese literature scholar Haruo Shirane sees indications
in her poems that she resented her husband.
The couple's daughter, Kenshi (Kataiko), was born in 999. Two years
later Nobutaka died during a cholera epidemic. As a married woman
Murasaki would have had servants to run the household and care for her
daughter, giving her ample leisure time. She enjoyed reading and had
access to romances (monogatari ) such as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
The Tales of Ise
According to legend,
Murasaki retreated to
Ishiyama-dera at Lake Biwa
, where she was inspired to write
The Tale of Genji
In her early to mid-thirties, she became a lady-in-waiting (nyōbō) at court, most likely because of her reputation as an author. Chieko Mulhern writes in Japanese Women Writers, a Biocritical Sourcebook that scholars have wondered why Murasaki made such a move at a comparatively late period in her life. Her diary evidences that she exchanged poetry with Michinaga after her husband's death, leading to speculation that the two may have been lovers. Bowring sees no evidence that she was brought to court as Michinaga's concubine , although he did bring her to court without following official channels. Mulhern thinks Michinaga wanted to have Murasaki at court to educate his daughter Shōshi.
A Tosa-school mid- to late 17th-century yamato-e of Heian courtiers by Tosa Mitsuoki , shows women dressed in jūnihitoes and with floor-length hair.
Heian culture and court life reached a peak early in the 11th century. The population of Kyoto grew to around 100,000 as the nobility became increasingly isolated at the Heian Palace in government posts and court service. Courtiers became overly refined with little to do, insulated from reality, preoccupied with the minutiae of court life, turning to artistic endeavors. Emotions were commonly expressed through the artistic use of textiles, fragrances, calligraphy, colored paper, poetry, and layering of clothing in pleasing color combinations—according to mood and season. Those who showed an inability to follow conventional aesthetics quickly lost popularity, particularly at court. Popular pastimes for Heian noblewomen—who adhered to rigid fashions of floor-length hair, whitened skin and blackened teeth—included having love affairs, writing poetry and keeping diaries. The literature that Heian court women wrote is recognized as some of the earliest and among the best literature written in the Japanese canon .
RIVAL COURTS AND WOMEN POETS
When in 995 Michinaga's two brothers
Fujiwara no Michitaka and
Fujiwara no Michikane died leaving the regency vacant, Michinaga
quickly won a power struggle against his nephew Fujiwara no Korechika
(brother to Teishi ,
Women of high status lived in seclusion at court and, through
strategic marriages, were used to gain political power for their
families. Despite their seclusion, some women wielded considerable
influence, often achieved through competitive salons , dependent on
the quality of those attending. Ichijō's mother and Michinaga's
sister, Senshi, had an influential salon, and Michinaga probably
wanted Shōshi to surround herself with skilled women such as Murasaki
to build a rival salon.
Shōshi was 16 to 19 when
Murasaki joined her court. According to
Sei Shōnagon , author of
The Pillow Book
The two writers had different temperaments: Shōnagon was witty, clever, and outspoken; Murasaki was withdrawn and sensitive. Entries in Murasaki's diary show that the two may not have been on good terms. Murasaki wrote, " Sei Shōnagon ... was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever, littered her writing with Chinese characters, left a great deal to be desired." Keene thinks that Murasaki's impression of Shōnagon could have been influenced by Shōshi and the women at her court because Shōnagon served Shōshi's rival empress. Furthermore, he believes Murasaki was brought to court to write Genji in response to Shōnagon's popular Pillow Book. Murasaki contrasted herself to Shōnagon in a variety of ways. She denigrated the pillow book genre and, unlike Shōnagon who flaunted her knowledge of Chinese, Murasaki pretended to not know the language.
"THE LADY OF THE CHRONICLES"
Although the popularity of the Chinese language diminished in the
late Heian era, Chinese ballads continued to be popular, including
those written by
Murasaki probably earned an ambiguous nickname, "The Lady of the Chronicles" (Nihongi no tsubone), for teaching Shōshi Chinese literature. A lady-in-waiting who disliked Murasaki accused her of flaunting her knowledge of Chinese and began calling her "The Lady of the Chronicles"—an allusion to the classic Chronicles of Japan—after an incident in which chapters from Genji were read aloud to the Emperor and his courtiers, one of whom remarked that the author showed a high level of education. Murasaki wrote in her diary, "How utterly ridiculous! Would I, who hesitate to reveal my learning to my women at home, ever think of doing so at court?" Although the nickname was apparently meant to be disparaging, Mulhern believes Murasaki was flattered by it.
The attitude toward the Chinese language was contradictory. In Teishi's court, Chinese had been flaunted and considered a symbol of imperial rule and superiority. Yet, in Shōshi's salon there was a great deal of hostility towards the language—perhaps owing to political expedience during a period when Chinese began to be rejected in favor of Japanese—even though Shōshi herself was a student of the language. The hostility may have affected Murasaki and her opinion of the court, and forced her to hide her knowledge of Chinese. Unlike Shōnagon, who was both ostentatious and flirtatious, as well as outspoken about her knowledge of Chinese, Murasaki seems to have been humble, an attitude which possibly impressed Michinaga. Although Murasaki used Chinese and incorporated it in her writing, she publicly rejected the language, a commendable attitude during a period of burgeoning Japanese culture.
Murasaki seems to have been unhappy with court life and was withdrawn and somber. No surviving records show that she entered poetry competitions; she appears to have exchanged few poems or letters with other women during her service. In general, unlike Sei Shōnagon, Murasaki gives the impression in her diary that she disliked court life, the other ladies-in-waiting, and the drunken revelry. She did, however, become close friends with a lady-in-waiting named Lady Saishō, and she wrote of the winters that she enjoyed, "I love to see the snow here".
According to Waley, Murasaki may not have been unhappy with court life in general but bored in Shōshi's court. He speculates she would have preferred to serve with the Lady Senshi, whose household seems to have been less strict and more light-hearted. In her diary, Murasaki wrote about Shōshi's court, " has gathered round her a number of very worthy young ladies ... Her Majesty is beginning to acquire more experience of life, and no longer judges others by the same rigid standards as before; but meanwhile her Court has gained a reputation for extreme dullness". In this 13th-century painting, from the Murasaki Shikibu Diary Emaki , drunk, disarranged, and disordered Heian courtiers are shown joking and flirting with court ladies.
Murasaki disliked the men at court whom she thought to be drunken and stupid. However, some scholars, such as Waley, are certain she was involved romantically with Michinaga. At the least, Michinaga pursued her and pressured her strongly, and her flirtation with him is recorded in her diary as late as 1010. Yet, she wrote to him in a poem, "You have neither read my book, nor won my love." In her diary she records having to avoid advances from Michinaga—one night he sneaked into her room, stealing a newly written chapter of Genji. However, Michinaga's patronage was essential if she was to continue writing. Murasaki described his daughter's court activities: the lavish ceremonies, the complicated courtships, the "complexities of the marriage system", and in elaborate detail, the birth of Shōshi's two sons.
It is likely that Murasaki enjoyed writing in solitude. She believed she did not fit well with the general atmosphere of the court, writing of herself: "I am wrapped up in the study of ancient stories ... living all the time in a poetical world of my own scarcely realizing the existence of other people .... But when they get to know me, they find to their extreme surprise that I am kind and gentle". Inge says that she was too outspoken to make friends at court, and Mulhern thinks Murasaki's court life was comparatively quiet compared to other court poets . Mulhern speculates that her remarks about Izumi were not so much directed at Izumi's poetry but at her behavior, lack of morality and her court liaisons, of which Murasaki disapproved.
Rank was important in Heian court society and
Murasaki would not have
felt herself to have much, if anything, in common with the higher
ranked and more powerful Fujiwaras. In her diary, she wrote of her
life at court: "I realized that my branch of the family was a very
humble one; but the thought seldom troubled me, and I was in those
days far indeed from the painful consciousness of inferiority which
makes life at Court a continual torment to me." A court position
would have increased her social standing, but more importantly she
gained a greater experience to write about. Court life, as she
experienced it, is well reflected in the chapters of Genji written
after she joined Shōshi. The name
Murasaki was most probably given to
her at a court dinner in an incident she recorded in her diary: in c.
1008 the well-known court poet
Fujiwara no Kintō
LATER LIFE AND DEATH
Genji-Garden at Rozanji, a temple in Kyoto associated with her former mansion
Murasaki may have died in 1014. Her father made a hasty return to
Kyoto from his post at
Murasaki's brother Nubonori died in around 1011, which, combined with
the death of his daughter, may have prompted her father to resign his
post and take vows at Miidera temple where he died in 1029.
Murasaki's daughter entered court service in 1025 as a wet nurse to
Three works are attributed to Murasaki:
The Tale of Genji
DIARY AND POETRY
Murasaki began her diary after she entered service at Shōshi's court. Much of what we know about her and her experiences at court comes from the diary, which covers the period from about 1008 to 1010. The long descriptive passages, some of which may have originated as letters, cover her relationships with the other ladies-in-waiting, Michinaga's temperament, the birth of Shōshi's sons—at Michinaga's mansion rather than at the Imperial Palace—and the process of writing Genji, including descriptions of passing newly written chapters to calligraphers for transcriptions. Typical of contemporary court diaries written to honor patrons, Murasaki devotes half to the birth of Shōshi's son Emperor Go-Ichijō, an event of enormous importance to Michinaga: he had planned for it with his daughter's marriage which made him grandfather and de facto regent to an emperor.
Poetic Memoirs is a collection of 128 poems Mulhern describes as "arranged in a biographical sequence". The original set has been lost. According to custom, the verses would have been passed from person to person and often copied. Some appear written for a lover—possibly her husband before he died—but she may have merely followed tradition and written simple love poems. They contain biographical details: she mentions a sister who died, the visit to Echizen province with her father and that she wrote poetry for Shōshi. Murasaki's poems were published in 1206 by Fujiwara no Teika , in what Mulhern believes to be the collection that is closest to the original form; at around the same time Teika included a selection of Murasaki's works in an imperial anthology, New Collections of Ancient and Modern Times .
THE TALE OF GENJI
The Tale of Genji
Murasaki is best known for her The Tale of Genji, a three-part novel spanning 1100 pages and 54 chapters, which is thought to have taken a decade to complete. The earliest chapters were possibly written for a private patron either during her marriage or shortly after her husband's death. She continued writing while at court and probably finished while still in service to Shōshi. She would have needed patronage to produce a work of such length. Michinaga provided her with costly paper and ink, and with calligraphers. The first handwritten volumes were probably assembled and bound by ladies-in-waiting. Late 17th-century or early 18th-century silk scroll painting of a scene from chapter 34 of The Tale of Genji showing men playing in the garden watched by a woman sitting behind a screen.
In his The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Keene claims Murasaki
wrote the "supreme work of Japanese fiction" by drawing on traditions
of waka court diaries, and earlier monogatari—written in a mixture
of Chinese script and Japanese script—such as The Tale of the Bamboo
The Tales of Ise
The themes in Genji are common to the period, and are defined by Shively as encapsulating "the tyranny of time and the inescapable sorrow of romantic love". The main theme is that of the fragility of life, "the sorrow of human existence", mono no aware —she used the term over a thousand times in Genji. Keene speculates that in her tale of the "shining prince", Murasaki may have created for herself an idealistic escape from court life, which she found less than savory. In Prince Genji she formed a gifted, comely, refined, yet human and sympathetic protagonist . Keene writes that Genji gives a view into the Heian period; for example love affairs flourished, although women typically remained unseen behind screens, curtains or fusuma .
Helen McCullough describes Murasaki's writing as of universal appeal
The Tale of Genji
Murasaki's reputation and influence have not diminished since her lifetime when she, with other Heian women writers, was instrumental in developing Japanese into a written language. Her writing was required reading for court poets as early as the 12th century as her work began to be studied by scholars who generated authoritative versions and criticism. Within a century of her death she was highly regarded as a classical writer. In the 17th century, Murasaki's work became emblematic of Confucian philosophy and women were encouraged to read her books. In 1673 Kumazawa Banzan argued that her writing was valuable for its sensitivity and depiction of emotions. He wrote in his Discursive Commentary on Genji that when "human feelings are not understood the harmony of the Five Human Relationships is lost." Early 12th-century handscroll scene from Genji, showing lovers separated from ladies-in-waiting by two screens, a kichō and a byōbu . Early 12th-century painting showing a scene from Genji of women in a traditional room partitioned by fusuma , shōji and a kichō . This work is listed as National Treasure of Japan .
The Tale of Genji
Female virtue was tied to literary knowledge in the 17th century, leading to a demand for Murasaki or Genji inspired artifacts, known as genji-e. Dowry sets decorated with scenes from Genji or illustrations of Murasaki became particularly popular for noblewomen: in the 17th century genji-e symbolically imbued a bride with an increased level of cultural status; by the 18th century they had come to symbolize marital success. In 1628, Tokugawa Iemitsu 's daughter had a set of lacquer boxes made for her wedding; Prince Toshitada received a pair of silk genji-e screens , painted by Kanō Tan\'yū as a wedding gift in 1649.
Murasaki became a popular subject of paintings and illustrations
highlighting her as a virtuous woman and poet. She is often shown at
her desk in Ishimyama Temple, staring at the moon for inspiration.
Tosa Mitsuoki made her the subject of hanging scrolls in the 17th
The Tale of Genji
In Envisioning the "Tale of Genji" Shirane observes that "The Tale of Genji has become many things to many different audiences through many different media over a thousand years ... unmatched by any other Japanese text or artifact." The work and its author were popularized through its illustrations in various media: emaki (illustrated handscrolls); byōbu-e (screen paintings), ukiyo-e (woodblock prints); films, comics, and in the modern period, manga . In her fictionalized account of Murasaki's life, The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel, Liza Dalby has Murasaki involved in a romance during her travels with her father to Echizen Province. 17th-century ink and gold paper fan showing Murasaki writing
The Tale of the Genji is recognized as an enduring classic.
McCullough writes that
Murasaki "is both the quintessential
representative of a unique society and a writer who speaks to
universal human concerns with a timeless voice. Japan has not seen
another such genius." Keene writes that
The Tale of Genji
Kyoto held a year-long celebration commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Genji in 2008, with poetry competitions, visits to the Tale of Genji Museum in Uji and Ishiyama-dera (where a life size rendition of Murasaki at her desk was displayed), and women dressing in traditional 12-layered Heian court Jūnihitoe and ankle-length hair wigs. The author and her work inspired museum exhibits and Genji manga spin-offs. The design on the reverse of the first 2000 yen note commemorated her and The Tale of Genji. A plant bearing purple berries has been named after her.
A Genji Album, only in the 1970s dated to 1510, is housed at Harvard University. The album is considered the earliest of its kind and consists of 54 paintings by Tosa Mitsunobu and 54 sheets of calligraphy on shikishi paper in five colors, written by master calligraphers. The leaves are housed in a case dated to the Edo period , with a silk frontispiece painted by Tosa Mitsuoki, dated to around 1690. The album contains Mitsuoki's authentication slips for his ancestor's 16th-century paintings.
In this c. 1795 woodcut , Murasaki is shown in discussion with five male court poets.
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* Shirane, Haruo. Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and
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