Murasaki Shikibu’s life remains shrouded in mystery, with limited information available about her. The last record mentioning her dates back to 1013, and it is believed by some that she passed away in 1016. Intriguingly, the tone of the later chapters in her novel takes a notably darker turn, leading to speculation that they may have been authored by someone else. However, her diary, a valuable source of insight, confirms that the chapters written between 1007 and 1008 were indeed her own.
In addition to her novel, Murasaki left behind a collection of poems, showcasing her multifaceted talent. The first English translation of her masterpiece, ‘The Tale of Genji,’ was skillfully rendered by Arthur Waley and published in 1935. Furthermore, her diary found its way into the English language through the translation efforts of Annie Shepley Ōmori and Kōchi Doi, who published it in their esteemed work, ‘Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan,’ also in 1935.
While numerous uncertainties surround Murasaki’s life, one certainty remains: her novel stands as a significant literary work that not only influenced world literature but also offers a captivating glimpse into the imperial Japan of yesteryears, as seen through the eyes of a young woman.
Her Real Name is Unknown
During the Heian era, the naming conventions differed significantly from the modern pattern. Names were not recorded extensively, and the usage of names followed a unique approach. In addition to being identified by their position titles, court ladies adopted names that reflected the rank or title of a male relative. For instance, Shikibu is not a conventional surname but rather a reference to Shikibu-shō, the Ministry of Ceremonials where Murasaki’s father held a position. Murasaki, another name associated with the color violet linked to wisteria (from ‘The Tale of Genji’) and the meaning of the word “fuji” in her clan name, might have been bestowed upon her at court. This name could have been a tribute to the main female character in Genji, a work she had named. In a diary entry from 1007, Michinaga mentions the names of various ladies-in-waiting, including Fujiwara no Takako (Kyōshi), who could potentially be Murasaki’s name.
Murasaki Shikibu was Fluent in Traditional Chinese
Although the popularity of the Chinese language waned during the late Heian era, Chinese ballads continued to captivate the masses. Murasaki, a prominent figure at the time, took it upon herself to impart her knowledge of Chinese to Shōshi, who had a keen interest in Chinese art and the enchanting Juyi’s ballads. Upon ascending to the position of Empress, Shōshi adorned screens with beautifully crafted Chinese script, which caused quite a stir. This act of defiance was met with outrage, as written Chinese was traditionally considered the domain of men, far removed from the confines of the women’s quarters.
The study of Chinese was deemed inappropriate for women, contradicting the prevailing belief that only men should have access to literature. Women were expected to confine themselves to reading and writing solely in Japanese, thereby reinforcing their separation from the realms of government and power. However, Murasaki, with her unorthodox classical Chinese education, emerged as one of the few women capable of teaching Shōshi the intricacies of this ancient language.
In a society where conformity was prized, Murasaki’s unconventional approach to education and her ability to navigate the complexities of classical Chinese made her a rare and invaluable resource for Shōshi. Through her teachings, Murasaki not only empowered Shōshi to defy societal norms but also provided her with a means to connect with a rich cultural heritage that had long been denied to women.
She helped in the Development of Japanese
Murasaki Shikibu’s work is highly regarded for its reflection on the creation and evolution of Japanese writing during a crucial period when the Japanese language transitioned from an unwritten vernacular to a written form. Before the 9th century, Japanese texts were predominantly written using Chinese characters through the man’yōgana writing system. However, a groundbreaking milestone was achieved in the mid-to-late 9th century with the development of kana, a genuine Japanese script. This pivotal development empowered Japanese authors to compose prose in their native language, giving rise to captivating literary genres such as tales (monogatari) and poetic journals (Nikki Bungaku).
Murasaki Shikibu may have Married her Relative
Aristocratic Heian women in the past led heavily restricted and secluded lives. They were only permitted to engage in conversations with men who were either close relatives or household members. In the case of Murasaki, her autobiographical poetry reveals that she did socialize with women, but her interactions with men were limited to her father and brother. While she frequently exchanged poetry with women, she never did so with men. It is worth noting that, unlike most noblewomen of her stature, Murasaki did not enter into marriage upon reaching puberty. Instead, she remained in her father’s household until her mid-twenties or possibly even into her early thirties.
There is historical debate and uncertainty about her marital status and relationships. Some scholars believe that she may have been married to a distant relative or cousin, but concrete evidence is lacking, and much of her life remains shrouded in mystery. She is believed to have married her father’s friend, Fujiwara no Nobutaka, a much older second cousin.
Murasaki Shikibu may not have Completed The Tale of Genji
There is a scholarly debate surrounding the completion of ‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu before her demise, with some questioning whether it was potentially finished by another individual. The historical records and evidence available do not answer this matter definitively. Certain sources propose that the work might have been left incomplete at the time of her passing, while others argue that she did finalize most of the narrative.
Were there illustrations of Murasaki Shikibu’s works?
Even a century after Murasaki’s passing, copies and illustrations of ‘The Tale of Genji’ appeared in various forms. A handscroll from the late Heian era in the 12th century, the ‘Genji Monogatari Emaki’ is made up of four scrolls, 19 paintings, and 20 sheets of calligraphy.
What position did Murasaki Shikibu have in the Heian Era?
During Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), Murasaki Shikibu worked as a lady-in-waiting (or court lady) in the imperial court. A lady-in-waiting was a high-ranking post only given to noblewomen who were close to the court. These ladies, who frequently came from aristocratic families, were chosen to work at the imperial court based on their connections and social standing.
In what court did Murasaki Shikibu serve?
In about 1005, Murasaki Shikibu was invited to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Imperial court by Fujiwara no Michinaga.
What inspired Murasaki Shikibu to write The Tale of Genji?
‘The Tale of Genji’ was allegedly inspired by Murasaki’s retreat to Ishiyama-dera in Lake Biwa on an August night while she gazed at the moon. Japanese artists frequently showed her at Ishiyama Temple staring at the moon for inspiration, despite historians dismissing the veracity of the account of her retreat.
What was the ancestral history of Murasaki Shikibu?
Murasaki Shikibu was born around 973 in Heian-kyō, Japan, and hailed from the esteemed northern Fujiwara clan, which traced its lineage back to Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, the influential regent of the 9th century. During the period spanning the 11th century, the Fujiwara clan exerted significant control over court politics. This dominance was achieved through astute matrimonial alliances, as they strategically married their daughters into the imperial family.