Classic Author Focus: Murasaki Shikibu

When I thought it was about time I featured a classic Asian writer and looked for a woman writer, my searches did not find the name of anyone except modern writers or classic male writers. Then I remembered The Tale of Genji.

There are no actual pictures of Murasaki Shikibu, but this is a 19th century rendition.

No one actually knows who Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, really was, but it is known that she was an 11th century novelist, poet, and courtier of the Heian Imperial court. Some scholars think she may have been Fujiwara no Kaoruko, a lady-in-waiting mentioned in a court diary.

Although women at this time were excluded from learning Chinese, the language of government, Murasaki was brought up in the powerful and influential Fujiwara family in an educated household and managed to become fluent and master the Chinese classics. Although some critics believe she wrote The Tale of Genji between 1001 and 1005, it is a very long, complex work and likely was written over a longer period. It is of interest because it offers glimpses of life in the court of the empress Jōtō mon’in,. Another work, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, has been used to glean what is known of the author’s life. It provides glimpses into the refined and elegant life of the aristocrats of the time and centers around Genji’s affairs with the women in his life.

Aristocratic women of the period led restricted lives and were only allowed to speak to men who were family or household members (although in the novel, Genji manages to do much more than speak with many women). Murasaki married later than was usual for her class, to a second cousin. Her husband died of cholera less than three years later. In her 30’s after she gained renown as a writer, she became a lady-in-waiting to the empress.

She retired from the palace after the emperor died in 1011 and may have died in 1014.

Along with some other women writers, she was responsible for developing Japanese into a written language. She was highly regarded as a writer, and her work was studied by scholars and considered representative of Confucianism.

Dates: c. 973 or 978-c. 1014-1031

Works: The Tale of Genji, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, Poetic Memoirs



9 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Murasaki Shikibu

  1. I’ve had this one on the shelves for years. I put it to one side earlier this month intending to give it away having decided i will be unlikely to read it . But then went and rescued it so its back on the shelves. Still not sure about it….

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  2. I’ve got The Tale of Genji on my Classics Club list but the size of it is a little intimidating… You’ve reminded me I need to bite the bullet at some point soon 🙂 I LOVE Sei Shōnagon, who was around about the same time I think, so I’m hopeful I’ll enjoy Shikibu’s diaries at the very least.

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    1. I tried to read The Tale of Genji when I was in grad school but couldn’t finish it. I may get more out of it now, but back then it seemed like just a tale of his conquests. Lots of sobbing women. Good luck!


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