The Tale of Genji was the first novel ever created. And guess what? It was created by a woman. Her name was Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman from the 11th century. Here’s everything you need to know about Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji.
Murasaki was roughly born between 970 to 978, with the most common year being 973. Murasaki’s family was a part of high society during the Heian period. Her great Grandfather was Fujiwara no Kanesuke who was a well-established poet at the time. He was also a Middle Counselor. Murasaki’s father was Fujiwara no Tametoki and he was a minor official.
In 996, Murasaki went with her father to Echizen. About two years later, she returned to the capital and married her much older second cousin, Fujiwara no Nobutaka, and shortly thereafter she birthed her daughter, Kenshi. However, her married life was short-lived as Nobutaka died two years later. His exact death is unknown, but he most likely passed from the plague. After he died in 1006, she began serving Empress Shoshi, the daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga. She either was a personal tutor or a personal poet with whom she wrote entertaining tales to. This is presumably when she began writing The Tale of Genji. She was her lady in waiting until 1013 when she soon passed the year after.
Murasaki Shikibu is not her real name— it simply means ‘ceremonial purple’. In fact, all of the characters in The Tale of Genji are named after their rank, so at times the reading can be confusing even for native Japanese speakers. Without her real name, some people have doubted if she actually wrote the story. The real reason people have doubts is that she was a woman. How can a woman write the first novel? Most of her written descriptions about masculine beauty are toward the female gaze of that era, so there shouldn’t be much doubt that it was made by a woman of that time.
During that period, women were only allowed to write in Kana (basic Japanese) text, even when most men wrote in Chinese. This was because, during this time, Chinese was considered for masculine writers. However, the recorded history was actually written mostly by women, as they wrote in the Kana writing system which is different from Kanji (Chinese).
The novel is about the life of Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji.) He is the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, Kiritsubo and his mother was Kiritsubo Consort, a low-ranking concubine. Because of his mother’s low status, Genji is removed from the line of succession– having him placed as a commoner. Genji pursues to be an imperial officer; however, the primary focus of the story is Genji’s love life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society during this period.
Genji is a bachelor and he bounces from woman to woman. Coincidently, one of his many suitors is named Murasaki, though this character shares the same name as the author. She ends up being his one and true love. However, before this revelation (and even after) Genji had MANY love affairs. The first relationship he embarks on is with his father’s young wife. Yes, you heard correctly, and she ends up pregnant with his child!
He proceeds with many different court ladies, but one gets him in serious trouble when the lady he is sleeping with is discovered to be from an opposing faction, which forces Geni into exile in Suma. This is short-lived, and after he returns, he begins to rise in his rankings. He winds up married to Onna-Sannomiya. However, karma comes around and nips him in the butt when it’s discovered she had an affair that resulted in a child. The child’s name was Kaoru.
His one and true love, Murasaki-no-ue suddenly dies, which caused Genji to leave the capital and live in a small mountain temple. You would think this is where the story ends as Genji soon dies, but no. Genji’s legacy lives on through Kaoru, his grandson, and Nio-no-miya, Kaoru’s friend and they begin their love affairs.
It’s believed Murasaki would have continued The Tale of Genji as long as she was alive. The reasoning being is there is no definite ending to the book.
The First of Many
If the summary alone doesn’t tell you which archetype Genji fits, I don’t know what will. Genji was the first anti-hero in literature. In some ways, I see him being the villain of his own story, but he doesn’t necessarily do anything ‘bad’ except cheat on multiple women at a time. Which of course denotes that he isn’t a person to look up to.
As a result, The Tale of Genji has also been considered to be the first psychological novel as it uses Genji’s love life as a guide and reason for why he acts the way he does. His mother, though not mentioned very often, was one of his father’s many lovers– but she was the only one that was allowed to see the Emperor’s face, which was frowned upon because it was a sign of disrespect.
However, out of all the Emperor’s lovers, he fell deeply for Genji’s mother. This did not help her in any way as the other lovers grew jealous. They would do heinous things to her such as lay feces by where she walked. By the time Genji was three, his mother died from all the bullying.
As Genji grew up, he obtained many lovers, one of which as you may know by now, was his father’s wife. The worse detail was she looked a lot like his mother.
There are many theories surrounding The Tale of Genji. One is of course, Murasaki wasn’t the original writer, however, more theories are a bit more believable. It was believed by Yosano Akiko, the first translator for The Tale of Genji, that Murasaki wrote for the first 33 chapters, and her daughter, Daini no Sanmi, wrote 35 to 54. Some scholars have argued chapters 2 to 54 take a different writing style and that there are a few continuity mistakes. Inside Royall Tyler’s introduction for the translated version, he expressed that while translating, a computer analysis discovered that there is a different style between chapters 45-54.
Although there was no definite ending in The Tale of Genji, some sources say that the ending was purposeful through the diary entries from Murasaki herself and Sarashina Nikki’s diary entry in which she discloses her joy of reading the complete copy of the story.
Another theory, possibly true, is that Genji’s character was based on the Minister on the Left at the time was in court.
The Tale of Genji is a story everyone should read at least once in their life. There’s drama, adventure, and loads of romance. It is also a monumental moment in women’s history.
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