Murasaki Shikibu

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The foremost writer of the Heian period, Murasaki authored The Tale of Genji, one of the greatest works in Japanese literature and the world’s earliest novel, defining in it the aesthetic sensibility of the aristocratic courtier class whose lives and culture her writings reflected.

Early Life

Murasaki Shikibu began her life in the late tenth century when the Fujiwara family dominated politics at the capital of Kyoto. Controlling the posts of chancellor and regent, the Fujiwara permitted the emperors to reign but not rule. Moreover, the Fujiwara influenced the succession to the throne by marrying their daughters into the imperial line. Fujiwara no Michinaga, the most powerful family member in the mid-Heian period, married four of his daughters to emperors and was the grandfather of three emperors.

Fujiwara no Tametoki (born c. 945) was a member of a cadet branch of this clan. A low-ranking member of the court bureaucracy, he was adept in the Chinese Confucian classics and poetry—talents he inherited from his father and grandfather, who were literary figures in their own right. Eventually, Tametoki—through the assistance of his powerful kinsman, Michinaga—rose to a post in the Bureau of Ceremonials (Shikibu-shō). He married a daughter of Fujiwara no Tamenobu and about 975 they had a daughter. This daughter’s real name is unknown, but history has come to know her as Murasaki Shikibu. Since surnames were uncommon, women frequently were known by names derived from a brother’s or father’s official post. “Shikibu,” her father’s title, became part of her name and “Murasaki” (“violet” or “purple”) perhaps was derived from the color of the wisteria flower, whose Chinese character made up the first syllable of the name “Fujiwara” (wisteria plain). Some sources call her “Tō” no Shikibu, Tō being another way of reading the first part of Fujiwara.

Heian women were expected to be educated at home in calligraphy, playing the koto, embroidery, painting, and other feminine arts. Males, on the other hand, were to learn the Chinese classics and the histories in preparation for official careers. Murasaki, however, received a broad education in both the feminine arts and the traditional Chinese classics. In fact, she was better at composition in Chinese than her brother Nobunori. She often delighted her father by quoting from the Chinese histories, composing poems in imitation of Chinese masters, and displaying a command of literature that normally would have been expected only of boys. She also was well versed in Japanese literary genres and Buddhist writings.

In addition, Murasaki was proficient at kana writing. The Japanese, lacking a written script for their language, had borrowed the Chinese system about the time that Buddhism was introduced from the continent (via Korea) in the sixth century. Unfortunately, the Chinese characters, linked as they were to the monosyllabic Chinese syntax, were awkward for expressing the very different polysyllabic Japanese language. As a result, the Japanese eventually used the cursive, written form of certain Chinese graphs for sound value alone. This new syllabary, called hiragana, was used with katakana (a script, also derived from Chinese characters, reserved for writing foreign words) and kanji (Chinese characters). Thus, kana blended three different systems into one written language.

Writing thus became less intimidating; in addition, Japanese ideas could be liberated from Chinese models wedded to the foreign script. Men, however, looked down on using the easy kana syllabaries, preferring to use characters alone in imitating Chinese genres. Women, who were not expected to know Chinese, were given free rein to write in kana, and they experimented with new literary forms to express uniquely Japanese sentiments. In fact, the Heian period marked the emergence of an original Japanese literature liberated from Chinese stereotypes; much of it was produced by talented women such as Murasaki.

When her father was assigned to the post of governor of Echizen, she accompanied him in 996 and...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)