Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #15: Genji's Dreamer, Murasaki Shikibu

This is another in my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, please check out my overview entry.


As autumn advances, the Tsuchimikado mansion looks unutterably beautiful. Every branch on every tree by the lake and each tuft of grass on the banks of the stream takes on its own particular color, which is then intensified by the evening light. The voices in the ceaseless recitation of sutras are all the more impressive as they continue throughout the night; in the slowly cooling breeze it is difficult to distinguish them from the endless murmur of the stream.

--The Diary of Lady Murasaki

In an earlier entry, I discussed the large contributions of women to Heian literature, including the creation of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), a book some would give the title of "world's first novel." What about the woman behind this masterpiece, Lady Murasaki?

We perhaps know more than one would expect of a woman born over a thousand years ago but still not tremendously much. Despite the highly literate and records-obsessed nature of Heian society, our direct evidence of Lady Murasaki is limited to fragments of her diary (which is really a collection of writings, some autobiographical observations, some other materials like poetry) and a small number of indirect historical references. If Lady Murasaki had been born a man, we'd probably know a lot more about her, but at the time women were mostly viewed as a means to an end: children. The names, even of many high-status women, were often not recorded. Instead, when referenced, they were given titles that related them to male relatives.

Indeed, the "name" associated with Lady Murasaki, Murasaki Shikibu, is a nickname of sorts referencing the color lavender and the government ministry employing her father. Do we have no clue of her real name? There's some circumstantial evidence from historical records that suggests she may have been one Takako Fujiwara.

So, what do we know? She appears to have been born around 973 to the northern Fujiwara. She had a brother and two sisters, along with several half-brothers and siblings. Her family line, in general, was known for their poets, something that in Heian society was quite well respected.

In a somewhat unusual move, she was allowed a decent amount of education in Chinese and Chinese literature alongside her brother. As I mentioned in my mistresses of literature entry, one of the reasons Heian women contributed so much to classical Japanese literature was because they were often both simultaneously denied a Chinese education (the prestige language at the time) and Japanese itself was somewhat devalued compared to Chinese in terms of its alleged literary value. These otherwise educated and intelligent women thus produced vernacular works to sate their creative and intellectual needs.

Initially, Lady Murasaki learned Chinese by listening at the door when her brother was receiving lessons. After her father realized how keen her mind was, he apparently allowed some more direct instruction and was even said to have lamented she was not born a boy. While her brother was not particularly stupid, the evidence suggests he wasn't as intelligent as Lady Murasaki and lacked a certain ambition. As much of this evidence comes from some comments in her diary, one cannot help but suspect some bias. That being said, she was very honest in her diary about her own perceived faults, so it'd be a mistake to dismiss her observations out of her hand.

She would be married around 998 to a distant cousin. What is interesting about this marriage is that it took place so late, relatively speaking, in her life. Normally, aristocratic women of this period were married off as soon as they hit puberty. It's unclear how she felt about her husband, but he didn't last long, dying in 1001 from cholera. She did manage to have a daughter with her husband before his death.

Sometime between 1001 and 1004, her already burgeoning talent as a storyteller was becoming known and, combined with the political connections of her father, it allowed her to be brought to the imperial court to serve as a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Shoshi.

Fujiwara succession politics actually resulted in a period of two empresses under one emperor, Shoshi and Teishi. Lady Murasaki seemed to have literary disdain for Sei Shōnagon, a poet and servant of Empress Teishi, and author of another famous work from the period, The Pillow Book. 

It's hard to sort out how much of this bad blood was merely political (Teishi actually died before Murasaki even came to court) versus literary, but Murasaki's own words seem to suggest she found Shōnagon an aggressive and arrogant woman. Unlike The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book was a collection of personal observations and thoughts. Lady Murasaki, again judging by her diary, didn't seem to really think that highly of that type of work for general public consumption. Her diary also reveals that Murasaki was aware that many found her perhaps too aloof and intense. Given that Shōnagon had a reputation for more general ease about people, one wonders how much of Murasaki's feelings were just an indirect clash of personalities.

The diary (at least what we have) appears to have been started in 1008 and was maintained for at least two years. Her diary entries indicate she was a keen observer of court society, but somewhat disdainful of what she felt were the excesses of court.

Interestingly enough, her diary also reveals she somewhat concealed her knowledge of Chinese from many, as she feared it would be considered unfeminine, though apparently some other ladies-in-waiting thought she was flaunting her knowledge at times with the empress. Given that much of what we know about her life at court is from her own words, it's again hard to filter for the bias, but it should be stressed that Lady Murasaki was unusually educated even for a aristocratic woman. This was likely to cause jealously no matter how she presented herself.

Empress Shoshi's husband, Emperor Ichigo, died in 1011. So she retired from court, and this in turn meant her ladies-in-waiting had to retire with her. Although there are some records indicating that Murasaki was still around the empress in 1013, things get somewhat less clear by 1014. There's varying indirect evidence that she may have died in 1014, but other evidence suggests she may have lived for another decade.

It's unclear her seminal work, The Tale of Genji, was actually written. It may have at least have been started during her marriage, and large portions of it were read to Emperor Ichigo, so it must have been at least mostly complete before 1011. A 1021 diary entry by another noblewoman confirms its completion by at least that date. Given a possible death in 1014, one might think that it was definitely finished before then, but there is a certain amount of controversy about the last section of the book that is somewhat different in style and character focus. It's possible that someone else, perhaps even Lady Murasaki's daughter, may have written those chapters, so the mystery of the timing of authorship remains somewhat cloudy.

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