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Murasaki Shikibu & The Tale of Genji

Defining author of Japanese literature in the Heian period

A japanese woodblock print depicting a woman standing in the moonlight in a blue dress with long black hair.
Jolan Wuyts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is sometimes said to be the first modern novel ever written: a fictional story set in the real world, with a sequence of events focusing on the psychological development of the main character and surrounding minor characters.

It was written in 11th century Japan by Murasaki Shikibu, an influential court lady-in-waiting. The Tale of Genji is one of the greatest Japanese classics of literature, which gives amazing insights into Japanese high society in a period of radical change.

During the Heian period (8th-12th Centuries CE), Japan became more and more independent and isolated from China, distinguishing itself in language, customs, and writing.

Murasaki grew up around this time, born into a low-ranking aristocratic family. Her father taught his son classical Chinese, as was customary. Murasaki listened in on the lessons and was soon more fluent in Chinese than her own brother. In this period, women were generally believed to be less intelligent than men and thus weren't taught the Chinese language. Her father would exclaim *'Just my luck, what a pity she was not born a man!' *

She would later combine all of these influences in her own literary work, making the Tale of Genji a remarkable testament to both Chinese and Japanese literary history.

The tale of Genji was written in kana, a Japanese script derived from Chinese. Part of the individualisation of Japan from China showed in the development of its own writing around the second half of the 9th Century. The fact that Murasaki's work was written in this script cemented it as one of the earliest and most highly esteemed pieces of Japanese literature.

Murasaki Shikibu depicted in a purple robe, staring at the moon in Ishimyama Temple

Murasaki got her name, confusingly, probably in reference to the main female character in her own famous novel the Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu was not her given name, but the name used to describe her in the imperial court records and diaries handed down to us.

The name is also linked to the colour purple. When Murasaki is depicted, she is often wearing purple robes in reference to this. She's also often shown in Ishimyama temple, staring up at the moon during the night, wistfully, seeking inspiration. The legend says that it is here, looking at the moon, that the inspiration for The Tale of Genji came to Murasaki.

A character from the Tale of Genji depicted looking at the moon, wearing a blue robe

The novel describes the life of Genji, the son of a Japanese emperor, who is removed from the line of succession and instead pursues a career as an imperial officer. The book focuses on Genji's romantic exploits with multiple women, as well as the life and costumes at the Heian court.

Genji and two women on a barge, floating in between irises

Murasaki drew from her own experience as a lady-in-waiting for the Japanese Empress Shōshi.

Women lived secluded from the men at the Japanese court, mostly busying themselves with writing diaries, creating poetry, and discussing literature in court salons. Even before the completion of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki became well-known for her poetry and writing excellence. Empress Shōshi sought out Murasaki as a companion and a tutor to add to her salon, increasing Shōshi's standing at court.

a woodblock print depicting empress Shōshi, in flowing robes

It's known that the novel was released in multiple volumes over a period of several years. Murasaki would have distributed handwritten copies of her chapters to friends, who would, in turn, have copied it and passed it onto others. Murasaki's book was a hot commodity all over Japan, many seeking out the new chapters so they could read the continuation of the story.

The novel was probably completed around 1021. Emperor Ichijō had the novel read to him, a rare occurrence since the book was written in Japanese, where it was customary for male courtiers to only deal with the Chinese language.

a group of six classic Japanese women poets.

As The Tale of Genji was copied over and over and spread throughout Japan's provinces, during her life and certainly after her death Murasaki became a literary legend.

Murasaki's work became required reading for all court poets as early as the 12th Century. The emotionality and sensitivity shown in her writing made her works exemplary of Confucian philosophy.

Murasaki herself, as well as Genji and other characters from her books became popular topics in Japanese art. Scenes from the book were often depicted in woodblock prints and other ukiyo-e artwork, it became customary for dowries to include intricately carved artifacts or illustrations from The Tale of Genji.

brown wooden lacquer box decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji

Murasaki's influence is still felt to this day, as a genius writer and courtesan who defied the norm of how women were thought of in that period.

the wooden inlaid cover of a 17th Century manuscript version of the Tale of Genji
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