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Definition: Murasaki, Shikibu from Philip's Encyclopedia

Japanese diarist and novelist. Murasaki is best known for her novel, The Tale of Genji. Dating from c.1000, it is one of the first works of fiction written in Japanese. See also Japanese literature


Summary Article: Murasaki Shikibu (c. 970–c. 1031) from The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Love, Courtship, and Sexuality through History: The Medieval Era

Born in the 970s, probably in the Japanese capital city, Kyo, Lady Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of Tametoki, a scholar and official in the ministry of ceremony. Her family was a minor branch of the Fujiwara dynasty, which had secured power over the Japanese emperors through marriage and regencies. Murasaki studied classical Chinese and Japanese alongside her brother, Nobunori (d. 1013), which gave her a far more thorough education than her female peers. Married around 999 to a much older relative, Murasaki had a daughter, but in 1001 her husband died in an epidemic. She remained in seclusion in the family home until both her father and brother became provincial officials and Murasaki acquired a court post in 1004 as lady-in-waiting to Empress Fujiwara no Akiko, the consort of Emperor Ichijo.

Although she had kept a diary since adulthood, Murasaki only began writing her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, in 1008. Its fifty-four chapters detail the life and adventures of an illegitimate son of an emperor and his experience in Heian Japanese society. Rich with details about clothing, social customs, and manners of court life, the chapters circulated amongst the elite and gained popularity for their evocation of the imperial court and the elaborate rituals of love, courtship, and seduction. Murasaki wrote the work in kana, the phonetic Japanese of women, allowing her both a greater audience and the ability to mimic different classes of speech. Genji is an admirable hero, who was particularly popular amongst female readers for his loyalty and affection for all the women he had connections to, even long after their relationships ended. In a polygamous society like Heian Japan, jealousy between wives and concubines, legitimate and illegitimate children, and former and present lovers was a crucial threat to good manners and social harmony, which Murasaki uses as a theme in her work.

Murasaki, a literary rival and a contemporary of Pillow Book author Sei Shonagon, shows a synthesis of Buddhism, Shinto, and classical Chinese Confucianism in her intricate and epic work, which contains many original poems written by the characters. She disappears from court records after 1025, and probably retired to a convent, dying around 1031. The Tale of Genji and her diary continued to circulate as admired court literature.

Further Reading
  • Bowring, Richard, ed. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Penguin New York, 1996.
  • Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1964.
  • Puette, William. The Tale of Genji: A Readers' Guide. Charles Tuttle Rutland, VT 1992.
  • Sankey, Margaret
    © 2008 by William E. Burns

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