Women in History: Murasaki Shikibu

The moon lies heavy on the waters of Lake Biwa in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture. The trees are still, moved every so often by the light ripple of wind through branches. On a cool terrace of the Ishiyama Temple, a woman sits, pen in hand. She gazes at the moon, lost in her thoughts. Her mind is a stage, upon which play the many wondrous adventures of Genji, The Shining Prince. She readjusts her pen and begins to write.

This mysterious woman is known to history as Murasaki Shikibu, author of the world’s first novel.

Some of the details of her life are obscured by the movement of time. For instance, we know that “Murasaki Shikibu” was not her given name. Court ladies often chose surnames referenced by the ranks or titles of male relatives; “Shikibu” thus referred to the ministry in which her father worked. “Murasaki” might have been derived from the name for the color of wisteria and a component of her family name. It is very likely that it was given to her by the court because of the main female character of The Tale of Genji.  

We do have some clue as to her given name – a diary of one of her prominent male relatives refers to a lady-in-waiting named Takako, who evidence suggests is Murasaki.  Whatever her actual name might have been, it is important to remember that Heian courtiers preferred to record themselves as they wanted to be remembered. Thus, as the name Murasaki Shikibu was most widely used for this remarkable woman, it is the name that history calls her.

She was born into the historically powerful Fujiwara family around 973 CE in Heian-kyō. By the time of her birth, the family’s court influence had waned, and its best strategy for regaining its place was to marry Fujiwara daughters into the imperial family. From a young age, this was the future that young Murasaki prepared for.

In this era of Japanese history, Murasaki should have been raised in her mother’s household. However, her mother’s early death meant that Murasaki and her siblings all grew up in her father’s house. Her unconventional childhood set her on the path to becoming an unconventional woman.

Heian Japanese men believed that women were largely unintelligent, or at least that it was improper for a lady to possess too much education and knowledge. Because of this, women were not taught the Chinese language that was the preferred system for government and scholarship. Instead, women were relegated to writing and speaking Japanese, a still underdeveloped system that was treated with little respect.

Because her father permitted her to accompany her younger brother Nobunori in his studies, Murasaki learned the classical Chinese language and literature alongside Japanese poetry and calligraphy. In fact, Murasaki was such a proficient scholar that, according to her diaries, her father often lamented “What a pity she was not born a man!”

As she grew in wisdom and grace, Murasaki began to write poetry in her father’s house. She stayed with him long past when most other noblewomen would have married, possibly into her thirties. Eventually, around 998, she married a friend of her father’s, Fujiwara no Nobutaka.

Their time together was quite short-lived, lasting a mere two years of her life. Not long after the birth of their only child, a daughter named Kenshi, Nobutaka succumbed to cholera. The widowed Murasaki sequestered herself at the Ishiyama Temple at Lake Biwa, where she began to exercise her writing skills to the fullest of her ability.

After a few years at the temple, Murasaki came to the imperial court at the request of distant male relative Fujiwara no Michinaga. His daughter Shōshi was poised to become empress, and Murasaki had already gained a reputation as a skilled writer. Who better to become a tutor and advisor to his young, impressionable daughter?

The Heian court was characterized by fairly strict gender divisions. Women lived their lives in almost complete seclusion from men, and thus wrote mostly to and for each other. It is, in fact, the works of these court ladies that began to solidify the growing Japanese language and literature, and Murasaki was at the very center of this movement.

At court, Murasaki kept comprehensive diaries, wrote many of her 128 published poems and worked tirelessly on her epic Tale of Genji. She worked closely with the young empress, even passing on her knowledge of Chinese, a closely guarded secret and later high scandal of the time.  

It is during this time that she first earned the nickname “The Lady of the Chronicles.” It was meant to be somewhat derogatory, as a rival lady in waiting had accused her of flaunting her knowledge of classical Chinese and of the Chronicles of Japan. Though in reality, Murasaki was a careful negotiator of court politics who mostly managed to keep out of the gossip cycles and out of suspicious gazes, she did seem to exhibit a fondness for this nickname that inadvertently acknowledged her brilliance.

After the death of Empress Shōshi’s husband in 1011 and her subsequent retirement from court life, Murasaki followed her to a country mansion in Biwa. Once again, Murasaki took solace in the Ishiyama Temple and wrote in peace. From this point, she is once again obscured by time’s passage – though it is likely she died in 1014, she may have lived until 1031.

Though her life was fairly short, Murasaki Shikibu established herself as one of the greatest writers in Japanese history and in world history as well. By the 1100s CE, she was considered a classical writer and was required study for all serious scholars. Her work was constantly reprinted, illustrated, and distributed. By the 17th Century, scenes from The Tale of Genji were vital Japanese imagery that decorated everything from screens to wedding dowries.

Murasaki’s contributions to Japanese and world literature are nearly priceless. Not only did she write the world’s first novel, giving life to a completely new genre of literature, but she kept detailed records of Heian court life. Much of our information about this period comes from her diaries. She was also instrumental in the development of the Japanese language into a national pride – many have called her a Shakespeare of Japan for the way that she bent language to her will. 

Her remarkable life is a testament to the fact that women have always been present and active in history. She was unconventional, and her unique brilliance made her unforgettable.

Cover photo courtesy of David Flore. 

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