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