Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji

Scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Japanese scroll painting, Heian period, 12th century.

Scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Japanese scroll painting, Heian period, 12th century.

Tale of Genji, The. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 17 May. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/15681/Scene-from-Murasaki-Shikibus-The-Tale-of-Genji-Japanese-scroll>.

Murasaki Shikibu was born in Kyoto, Japan at the end of the tenth century (973CE). As is the case with the majority of historical figures in Japan at the time, her precise identity is unknown. Her name Muraskai is an epithet meaning “purple wisteria blossom.”  Shikibu refers to her father’s position in the imperial Bureau of Ceremony. Scholars postulate that she may have been a woman named Fujiwara Takako. Regardless of her name, her history is somewhat better known.  Murasaki was born to a family of minor nobility with connections to the imperial court. As a woman living in the middle ages, she lived an exceptional life. Because her mother died when she was young, her father, a scholar at court, took it upon himself to raise her (something usually left to the mother’s relatives). As a result, Murasaki was afforded an atypical education reserved only for young males. She became proficient in kanji (Chinese characters) and classical Chinese grammar in addition to mastering her own native kana alphabet and poetic tradition (waka). Her literary abilities were recognized early, and she was employed as a favorite lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi at court.  

During her lifetime, Murasaki produced three literary works: (1) a diary, (2) a collection of poetry, and (3) The Tale of Genji. The sheer length and scope of the Tale of Genji swallows the contributions of the other two works. For example, her collection of poetry containing only 128 poems is eclipsed by some 800 poems appearing in The Tale of Genji’s. More importantly, The Tale of Genji ranks as the world’s first novel, one written mostly in Japanese kana, not classical Chinese. It is divided into 54 chapters and three sections (the last somewhat questionably attributed to Murasaki) that recount the troubled life and love affairs of Hikaru Genji (the “Shining” Genji), a precious young prince at court. Genji’s numerous trysts and the tangled web they weave (at one point he has a relationship with an empress resembling his dead mother) comprise the major plot points of the novel. An important historical aspect of the work is how poetry is used as a necessary mode of communication between the literate. It is evidence of an actual historical practice used to communicate veiled meanings in a decorous manner.

To read an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading: * McCullough, Helen Craig.  Genji and Heiki: Selections from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of Heike. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.  

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Kokin Wakashu

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū (Gen'ei edition, National Treasure); early twelfth century; at the Tokyo National Museum

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū (Gen’ei edition, National Treasure); early twelfth century; at the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Under the 33 year reign of Emperor Daigo (897-930CE), Japan organized the first of its many imperial poetry collections. Daigo, son of Emperor Uda, assigned four of his best court poets, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi Mitsune and Mibu no Tadamine, in 905 CE to collect and order the best of Japanese poetry. The Kokin Wakashu was the fruit of their work (914CE).

 The Kokin Wakashu is the first of 21 imperial, Japanese poetic collections. It is compiled of 1,111 Japanese poems and its title may be translated as “Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems.” The collections begins with a Japanese preface, which begins with the most heavily commented secular prose text of the Japanese tradition: “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.”

Its position as the first would dictate the form and format of later Japanese poetry well into the 19th century. It set the precedent for anthologizing lyrics into seasonal periods and topics (e.g. Love) and of placing ancient poems alongside modern ones (which the word kokin suggests). There are 20 parts or rubrics to the collection ranging from “Spring” to “Partings,” “Travel” and “Laments.” The type of poetry contained in the collection is called waka, a term that distinguishes it from previously used Chinese forms. There are many different kinds of waka but two of the major ones include the tanka (split into a 5-7-5/7-7 syllabic structure) and the choka (5-7-5-7-5-7…/5-7-7). These poems contain no rhyme and are divided up into syllabic units called mora.

 The collection’s preface also officially begins the Japanese tradition of literary criticism, in which the nature of poetic inspiration, expression and production are explored. Major poets of the Kokin Wakashu include Ariwara no Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjo and Fujiwara no Okikare.

To read the Japanese text, click here.

To preview an English translation of the text, click here.

Further reading:

* McCullough, Helen Craig.  Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1985.