Lady Murasaki Shikibu Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Lady Murasaki Shikubu (mur-ah-sah-kee shee-kee-boo), foremost writer of the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan, had every advantage of birth and education. A member of a family that had produced mikados (emperors of Japan) and diplomats, she was the granddaughter of Fujiwara no Kanesuki, a celebrated Japanese poet. As a teenager she was considered something of a prodigy of learning, even in an age when Japanese women of noble birth were generally much better educated than their European contemporaries. While still in her teens Murasaki was well read in Chinese and Japanese literature and had already written both prose and verse. Widowed early, after a brief marriage to an officer in the Imperial Guard, she was called to the court by the empress-consort Akiko as chief maid of honor.{$S[A]Shikibu, Murasaki;Murasaki Shikibu}

Murasaki’s long association with the imperial court provided her with the leisure to continue her writing, which included many short poems and a diary, still extant. It also gave her a personal familiarity with the customs and character types so important in her best-known work, The Tale of Genji. The tale—a prose narrative in fifty-four books dealing with the loves and adventures of a fictional character, Genji, and his son, Kaoru—represents a higher achievement in Japanese literature than had been produced in any earlier period, and the work is considered by many to be the finest Japanese novel. With a keen eye for character and manners, Murasaki describes realistically, but in a formal style, the upper-class world of the age just preceding her own. Although it is filled with charm and humor, the dominant tone of The Tale of Genji is one of sadness at the declining splendor of a sophisticated and aristocratic society.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Lamentably, little is known of the life of Murasaki Shikibu. Scholars generally date her birth to sometime in the mid-970’s, and guesses about the year of her death range between 1014 and about 1030. Even her real name is a mystery: “Murasaki” seems to have been taken from The Tale of Genji itself, where it is a name attached to one of the novel’s most affecting female characters, and “Shikibu” (meaning “Bureau of Rights”) is a court title that was borne by her father, Tametoki, a member of one of the lesser branches of the Fujiwara clan, which dominated court life and politics in Murasaki’s day. (Court women were frequently referred to publicly in this way, by titles derived from those of male relatives; it is not unusual for a woman’s real name not to have survived.)

On the evidence of her diary, Murasaki seems to have had a somewhat unusual upbringing from the perspective of the highest reaches of court society. She may have spent some time away from the imperial capital, Kyto, in the company of her father, who served as a provincial governor in the late 990’s; more important, she appears to have been unusually well educated in comparison with her peers, having acquired some knowledge of Chinese in addition to the facility in written Japanese that was expected of any aristocratic woman.

Murasaki appears to have married a nobleman and distant kinsman, Fujiwara no Nobutaka, in about 998. Nobutaka was nearly her father’s age, and Murasaki was by that time well past the customary age for marriage, facts that suggest she had been married briefly before. In any case, in 999 she and Nobutaka had a daughter, who would become a poet in her own right under the names Echigo no Ben and Daini no Sammi, and who lived at least until 1078. Nobutaka, however, died in 1001, and it was as a widow that Murasaki became a lady-in-waiting to the empress in 1005 or 1006.

Murasaki was far from being plebeian, but it is probable that neither her rank nor her family connections would alone have been sufficient to account for her being called into service at the court of the empress, who was doubly to be honored, not only as the emperor’s consort but also as the daughter of the most powerful noble...

(The entire section is 2,364 words.)