LADY MURASAKI'S THE TALE OF GENJI
The Tale of Genji written about 1000 A.D. by Lady Murasaki Shikibu may
be described as many things such as the world's first great novel, a detailed
semi?historical account of court life in Heian Japan, a highly complicated yet
subtle psychological drama, a societal comment/criticism of refined court life.
All of these descriptions pay tribute to the literary skill of Lady Murasaki.
Who was this exceptional woman and how did she acquire her exceptional skills
despite being reared in a time when women were not encouraged to educate themselves
beyond what was necessary for a genteel lady of the aristocracy? In this essay
we will discuss Lady Murasaki's childhood and family, her education, her life
before and after she came to court, and finally we will provide a short description
of her most famous work The Tale of Genji.
Lady Murasaki Shikibu was born in 978 A.D. (although possibly as early as 973).
She was the daughter of Fujiwara Tametoki, a member of a minor branch of the
powerful family and a scholar of Chinese, assigned to the Board of Rites (Puette
50). Half of her name comes from the office her father held (Shikibu), and she
was dubbed Murasaki after the character in her book by a lady of the court.
Because of his own studies, Lady Murasaki's father wanted his son to be an accomplished
Chinese scholar. Lady Murasaki often attended her brother's lessons and was
such a quick learner that she often outshone her brother (Waley vii). Because
she was a female and therefore expected to content herself with the newly developed
syllabaries, her father would not allow her to have formal lessons. However
as her father was such an accomplished scholar, she could not help but be passively
educated while with him. Eventually, because her knowledge was so far greater
than what was proper for a woman to know, she was forced to conceal her abilities
Lady Murasaki spent several years with her father while he was the governor
of Echizen province. Then, in her late teens she was married to her kinsman
Fujiwara no Nobutaka, a lieutenant in the Imperial Guard. The marriage was a
happy one, producing one daughter, but Nobutaka died during a plague in 1001
(Bowring 4). Eventually, her father arranged for her to become an attendant
on the Empress Akiko, who appreciated Murasaki's more subdued and serious nature.
She secretly tutored the Empress in Chinese (even though it was improper) and
read Chinese poetry to her (Waley ix). While at court she kept a detailed diary
in which she entered not only her own thoughts, but also descriptions of the
court around her, the way the ladies dressed, the characters of the ladies,
as well as stories about various parties, festivals, ceremonies and scandals.
Around 1003 Lady Murasaki began work on The Tale of Genji when she was asked
by the Empress to come up with something more entertaining than the regular
stories that were so well known they had become boring (Puette 51).
Lady Murasaki was well known at the court as a poetess. However, even though
she was well known, she was not very popular. In her diary she admits that she
was often critical of the conduct of the members of the court, making those
around her think she was a prude (Waley xv). She preferred to be alone feeling
that sorrow over so many deaths in her family (her husband, her mother and sister)
bade her do so. Members of the court thought her too severe and spiteful and
that her solitary nature meant that she was too proud and unsociable (Puette
Lady Murasaki's diary stops in 1010. After this date nothing is known except
that her name still appeared on a list of those waiting on Empress Akiko in
1025, and that it is missing on the list made in 1031 (Bowring 5).
The Tale of Genji is the story of a man, the son of the Emperor by his
favorite consort, and his many escapades. In order to protect him since he has
backing at court, the Emperor makes the boy a Genji, or a member of the non-royal
clan, meaning he will not be Emperor and thus is not a threat to anyone.
Genji grows and becomes the most handsome, charming and talented person at court
and is dubbed "the shining Genji." The story continues through Genji's
life, telling of his health, wealth and fortune concerning three wives and innumerable
mistresses (including the consorts of two Emperors). Some of these women are
members of the court. Others are those he met while on his travels. After Genji's
death the story is continued with the next generation.
A poem from the Tale of Genji
I suppose all of you have heard of the Tale of Genji, this monumental work of Murasaki Shikibu from the 11th century, the single most famous novel of classical Japanese liturature. Just like the Ise Monogatari, the Genji is full of "embedded" poems, and their meaning is often highlighted by the events and characters they refer to.
The poem is from Chapter 4, "Yugao.. Prince Genji has a brief love affair with a young girl, called Yuugao. But there is another lady, deeply in love with Genji, who hates Yuugao so much that she dies. Yes, at that time people believed that hatred can kill people!
After the funeral of Yuugao, Genji is looking at the smoke from the pyre, and recites this poem (Helen McCullough's Translation):
The evening sky itself
becomes something to cherish
when I gaze at it,
seeing in one of the clouds
the smoke from her funeral pyre
It also is important to know that Yuugao's name means "Evening Faces." Therefore, Genji's reference to "being deeply intimate with the evening sky" refers to the love he shared with Yugao.
The poem in classical Japanese:
mishi hito no
keburi o kumo to
yuube no sora mo
mutsumashiki ka na
mishi is the rentaikei of miki, which is the past of miru, to see. The rentaikei form is used when a verb is set before a noun as an adjective. In modern Japanese, we would say mita hito, the person seen. In this case it means "beloved person."
mutsumashiki would be mutsumajii in modern Japanese. It meams "intimate, harmonious."
The Tale of Genji itself is a very intricate and detailed description
of court life in Heian Japan. It was only meant to be entertainment for the
courtiers, as few outside the court would be capable of reading at all. In fact,
many of the characters in the novel were based on members of the court around
her that would have been easily recognizable, thus making the criticism particularly
biting. Lady Murasaki wrote the work over many years (possibly as many as twenty)
eventually accumulating 54 "Jo" or chapters. Originally each chapter
was bound separately and then passed around the court to be read and copied
with little attention being paid as to whether the chapters were being read
chronologically. There is still a great deal of debate about when Lady Murasaki
actually began writing The Tale of Genji, whether it was before or after
she became an attendant to the Empress Akiko. And while it is agreed that it
took years to write, there is still argument about when and actually whether
it is was finished. Some believe the last chapter is abruptly ended on purpose,
others that Lady Murasaki intended to continue the story but never had the chance.
The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu is an elaborate and detailed account
of the aristocracy in Heian Japan. Despite her society's feelings that women
were to remain "femininely" ignorant, Lady Murasaki educated herself.
She rose to become a poetess of some note among the court and in so doing made
herself remembered far beyond her own time.
Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. Cambridge University
Press. Cambridge, England. 1988.
Puette, William J. Guide to the Tale of Genji. Charles E. Tuttle Company,
inc. Tokyo, Japan. 1983.
Waley, Arthur, Ed., The Tale of Genji: A Novel in Six Parts by Lady Murasaki.
George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London, England. 1973.