Murasaki Shikibu
by Dr. Kathleen Collins

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Copyright 1999



Women's Literature

Sappho of Lesbos
Li Ch'ing Chao
Murasaki Shikibu
Sei Shonagon
Virginia Woolf

Chinese/Japanese Literature

Book of Songs
Tao Ch'ien
Tang Poetry
The Manyoshu & The Kokinshu
The Tale of the Heike
Yoshida Kenko
Zeami Motokiyo
Higuchi Ichiyo
Wu Ch'eng-en
K'ung Shang-jen
Ts'ao Hsueh-Ch'in
Lu Xun
Ihara Saikaku
Matsuo Basho
Ueda Akinari
Tanizaki Junichiro
Kawabata Yasunari

Indian Literature

The Ramayana
The Mahabharata
The Bhagavad-Gita
The Kalidasa
Medieval Devotional Lyrics
Mahasweta Devi
Anita Desai
Rabindranath Tagore



Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. (on order) (reviewed copy obtained thorugh interlibrary loan). Reviewer: Kathleen Collins

Bowring's prefatory material includes a list of the chapter headings from The Tale of Genji and a genealogical chart for the characters from the novel. Bowring's book is very readable, excellent as an introduction to Murasaki and her writings.

Bowring's first chapter is entitled "The cultural background" and he subdivides this chapter into six parts: "Politics," "Murasaki Shikibu," "Religion," "Language," "A grammar of sexual relations," and "History and fiction."

Bowring classifies The Tale of Genji as the greatest achievement not only of the Heian Period (794-1192) in which it was written, but of all Japanese literature. While this novel was written at a time when Chinese literature and ideas were still an apparent presence and influence in Japan, this book is distinctively Japanese. It reflects particularly the Japanese traditions and does not draw from the familiar Chinese poetry and prose.

The politics of the Heian Period contributed to the creation of Shikibu's novel. China was not an immediate threat to the Japanese society. Japan had been able to maintain its hereditary succession and to keep its aristocratic political system. The politics of marriage, so apparent in The Tale of Genji, determined the real power behind the throne. While the recognized leader was the Emperor, the real power and decision maker was the Regent. The Regent was determined according to his blood relationship with the Emperor.

During Murasaki's life, the Fujiwara family dominated Japanese politics. The Emperor was six years old when he was crowned. Installing an Emperor too young to rule was one of the common practices the Regents used to garner or to maintain their power. Often considerable rivalry ensued as the various possible candidates for regents vied for office. Because of the rules of hereditary succession, this often meant that the treachery used to obtain office involved the brothers, nephews, cousins, or uncles within one family.

The women, then, played a significant role in the power politics. To ensure the continuing rule of any given family, they were necessary first to provide the male successor and their influence increased as they were the primary caregivers to the future Emperor or Regent. However given the life of seclusion imposed on the Japanese aristocratic women, their power was often limited to their ability to produce a male offspring.

Two sets of religious beliefs Shinto and Buddhism, play a major role in The Tale of Genji. The right to divine rule was tied to Shinto beliefs. Shrines were established for the exclusive use of the imperial family and were used in connection with imperial succession. So Shinto was primarily a set of beliefs important for public concerns, whereas Buddhism was important in the Japanese people's private lives.

The basic beliefs of Buddhism play such an important role in Japanese life that understanding them is central to understanding the events in Shikibu's novel. The important beliefs include

* Life is characterized by suffering.

* Suffering is created by desire, pleasure, attachment to this world, and rebirth.

* If nothing is done to end the cycle of rebirth, it will continue forever.

* The law of karma determines whether the cycle of rebirth is broken.

* The way to end the cycle and reach eternal bliss (nirvana) is to give up human desire.

* One can only subvert desire through intense intellectual and spiritual activity.

* The potential to reach nirvana, the divine state, is possible for all human beings.

Movement toward nirvana is achieved by performing good deeds and engaging in right thinking. This is only possible when one is able to eradicate desire. When a person fails, hope still exists, because compassion is central to the Buddhist belief.

Taking vows is seen as a way to renounce the pleasures of this world, subvert desire, and move toward achieving nirvana.

The influence of Chinese culture and politics merge in the state of the languages used in Japanese court. For a number of centuries Chinese was the language used for government documents and records. Using Chinese as the official language eased the government's ability to keep the participation in politics to a limited few. Women were not taught to read or write Chinese. Some women, however, were able to find their own means of getting around this restriction. Murasaki learned how to read Chinese by listening to her brother while he was taught the language. She was such a natural at language acquisition, that she was soon able to translate the passages her brother found too difficult. Intimidated by the public opinion of a woman who could understand the Chinese language, she pretended to be unable to translate even the simplest inscriptions even while she continued to read the Chinese classics in secret. Although in 905 a Japanese anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, was published, during the Heian period, the writing in Japanese was dominated by women. Japanese was so considered to be a private, and therefore female, medium, that well-known poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, wrote his diary in Japanese pretending to be a woman.

As is apparent in The Tale of Genji, the woman's place was relegated to the private sector. In this polygamous society both the man's wives and his mistresses waited behind doors until their men decided to visit.

Important to understanding the beginning of Murasaki's novel is to understand the meaning of the word genji. Genji refers to someone of first generation royal blood who has been declared unfit to be named Emperor. So, a genji can be viewed as only a very weak threat, someone who has lost his potential birthright.

Bowring includes a very brief plot summary of the entire Tale of Genji, dividing his discussion and summary into five parts. The first part (chapters 1-12) is entitled "sexual politics." Important to the first twelve books is the patterns of repetition. Similar to the way seasons repeat each other, so different characters mirror each other as they carry out their human desires.

Genji mirrors his father. Like his father, Genji allows his worldly passions to cloud his better judgement. He, like his father, mourns for Kiritsubo and falls for her substitute, Fujitsubo. Bowring explains this is not incestuous. While sexual relations between close members of a family is considered taboo, the main problem here is political, not moral. Genji is tampering with imperial succession.

Genji's marital relationship with Aoi would have more closely resembled real life. After marriage, husbands and wives generally lives apart, the husband making occasional visits. Genji's living arrangement then, with Murasaki would have seemed like a story-book romance in many respects. She is much his inferior, socially and politically and their domestic co-habitation was nearly unheard of.

Not surprising in a society which allows men to move so freely and to have sexual relationships with so many women, the dominating feeling the women possess is jealousy. Lady Rokujo is the prime example of just how destructive jealousy can be. Her jealousy is responsible for the death of Aoi and the destruction of Murasaki.

In his chapter, "Language and style," Bowring discusses the function of the narrator and the uses of the 795 poems included in The Tale of Genji. Poetry is connected with love, sexual attraction and the divine. He ends this chapter with a discussion of the problems of translation.

In his last chapter "Impact, influence, and reception," Bowring gives a chronological account of the writing and publication of the numerous versions of The Tale of Genji and the eastern and western writers who have admired this novel.

Bowring ends with a bibliography, including almost fifty books, articles, and dissertations, for anyone who wants to do further study of Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.


Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987. Call Number: PL 788.4 G43F5 1987 Reviewer: Kathleen Collins

Norma Field includes an invaluable cast of characters including their various names and their relationships to the other characters at the beginning of her book.

In the first chapter "Three Heroines and the Making of the Hero," Field discusses the role three women play in determining Genji's future. Field's thesis that Genji is defined by his relationships with his women is clear by the end of this first chapter.

Fujitsubo, the Akashi Lady, and Lady Rokujo are the three women discusses in the "Three Heroines" chapter. While her analysis is very helpful, it is also very slow going for someone who has not read the entire book.

Field also includes a chapter on Tamakazura and then a separate chapter on Murasaki.

This book is very good to understand the power and the limitations of the women in Japanese society. Her discussion of the poetry is especially thorough.




  • Bowring, Richard, The Tale of Genji (1988)
  • -----, Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs (1982)
  • Field, Norma, The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji (1987) PL788.4.G43 F5 1987
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Diary of Lady Murasaki, trans. Bowring (1996) PL788.4.Z5 A3513 1996
  • -----, The Tale of Genji, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. (1978) PL788.4.G4 E5 1978
  • -----, The Tale of Genji, trans. Arthur Waley (1960) PL788.4 .T3
  • Pekarik, Andrew, Ukifune : Love in The tale of Genji (1982) PL788.4.G43 U4 1982
  • Shirane, Haruo, The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of the 'Tale of Genji' (1987) PL788.4.G43S464 1987


Copyright 1999