Authors: Murasaki Shikibu

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Japanese novelist and courtier

c. 978

Kyoto, Japan

c. 1030

Kyoto, Japan

Biography

Lady Murasaki Shikubu, 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 emperors 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. {$I[AN]9810000047} {$I[A]Murasaki Shikibu} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Murasaki Shikibu} {$I[geo]JAPAN;Murasaki Shikibu} {$I[tim]0978;Murasaki Shikibu}

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu.

By Kanō Takanobu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Genji monogatari, c. 1004 (The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) Poetry: Murasaki Shikibu-shi, eleventh century (Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, 1982; includes poetry and nonfiction) Nonfiction: Murasaki Shikibu nikki, eleventh century (Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, 1982; includes poetry and nonfiction) Bibliography Bargen, Doris G. A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in “The Tale of Genji.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. An exploration of characters being possessed by spirits in The Tale of Genji through a gender studies lens. Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Chapter 1 is an up-to-date, concise summary of what Western and Japanese scholars know about Murasaki’ life. Reproduces scenes from The Tale of Genji picture scroll. Includes a bibliography, mostly of Japanese works. Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in “The Tale of Genji.” Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2001. An examination of the roles of female characters in the plot of The Tale of Genji. Kamens, Edward, ed. Approaches to Teaching Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1993. An assortment of scholarly essays on The Tale of Genji intended to help university professors present the text to their students. Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha International, 1971. Reprints Keene’s 1967 essay, “Feminine Sensibility in the Heian Era,” which explores the emergence of women writers and the kana writing system. Murasaki and The Tale of Genji are analyzed as part of this phenomenon. Includes illustrations and a bibliography. Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha International, 1971. Reprints Keene’ 1967 essay, “Feminine Sensibility in the Heian Era,” which explores the emergence of women writers and the kana writing system. Murasaki and The Tale of Genji are analyzed as part of this phenomenon. Includes illustrations and a bibliography. Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. 1964. Reprint. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. Morris’ study is the best interpretative work on the historical and cultural milieu of The Tale of Genji. Chapter 9 is an excellent biographical account of Murasaki. Includes a complete glossary listing historical figures in Murasaki’ life. Murasaki Shikibu. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Translated by Richard Bowring. New York: Penguin, 1996. A good translation of Muraskai’ other writings. Includes poetry, nonfiction, and a personal look into Lady Murasaki’ life. Includes bibliographical references. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. 1976. Reprint. New York: Knopf, 1992. In the second major English translation of The Tale of Genji, Seidensticker produced a translation that more closely reflected the original than did Arthur Waley’ translation. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Royall Tyler. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 2001. A detailed yet poetic translation of the famous tale by a modern scholar. Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1925-1933. 6 vols. Waley’ translation of The Tale of Genji, a relatively poetic, “free” translation, introduced the work to a Western audience. Pekarik, Andrew, ed. Ukifune: Love in the Tale of Genji. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. An essay collection focusing on the last ten chapters of The Tale of Genji, collectively known as the "Uji chapters." Puette, William J. Guide to “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983. Includes a useful précis plot of The Tale of Genji, supplemented by background chapters on topics relevant to understanding the novel. Chapter 4 gives a brief biography of Murasaki. Good bibliography. Puette, William J. “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle, 1992. A comprehensive reader's guide containing summaries, notes on characters, explanations of the historical context of the work, and thematic commentaries, among other information. Rowley, Gillian Gaye. Yosano Akiko and “The Tale of Genji.” Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2000. An exploration of Murasaki Shikibu's influence on early Japanese feminist writer Yosano Akiko, as well as of Yosano's role in popularizing The Tale of Genji and cementing its status as a classic of Japanese literature. Seidensticker, Edward G. “Eminent Women Writers of the Court: Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon.” In Great Historical Figures of Japan, edited by Hyoe Murakami and Thomas J. Harper. Tokyo: Japan Cultural Institute, 1978. This authoritative essay by a respected translator of The Tale of Genji compares and contrasts the lives and literary works of Murasaki and her court rival. Shirane, Hiruo. The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of “The Tale of Genji.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987. A work of literary criticism mainly focusing on the evolution of The Tale of Genji over the course of its initial publication, which would have taken place in installments released over several years.

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