Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部, English: Lady Murasaki) (c. 973 or 978 – c. 1014 or 1031) was a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian period. Murasaki wrote The Diary of Lady Murasaki, Poetic Memoirs (a collection of 128 poems), and The Tale of Genji, written in Japanese, between about 1000 and 1012.
Since the names of women were not recorded in the Heian era, Murasaki’s real name is unknown, but she may have been Fujiwara Takako, who was mentioned in a 1007 court diary as an imperial lady-in-waiting. As was customary for women of the period, Murasaki Shikibu is only a nickname. Women took nicknames associated with a male relative: “Shikibu” refers to (Shikibu-shō), the Ministry of Ceremonials where her father was a functionary; “Murasaki” may be derived from the color violet associated with wisteria, the meaning of the word fuji, although it is more likely that “Murasaki” was a court nickname.
Murasaki was born at a period when Japan was becoming more isolated, after missions to China had ended and a stronger national culture was emerging. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Japanese gradually became a written language through the development of kana, a syllabary based on abbreviations of Chinese characters. In Murasaki’s lifetime men continued to write in Chinese, the language of government, but kana became the written language of noblewomen, setting the foundation for unique forms of Japanese literature.
Her work is considered important because her writing reflects the creation and development of Japanese writing during a period when Japanese shifted from an unwritten vernacular to a written language. Until the 9th century, Japanese language texts were written inChinese characters using the man’yōgana writing system. A revolutionary achievement was the development of kana, a true Japanese script, in the mid-to late 9th century. Japanese authors began to write prose in their own language, which led to genres such as tales (monogatari) and poetic journals (Nikki Bungaku). Genji, written in kana, “was the outstanding work of the period”.
Heian women were traditionally excluded from learning Chinese, the written language of government, but Murasaki, raised in her erudite father’s household, showed a precocious aptitude for the Chinese classics and managed to acquire fluency. Chinese was taught to Murasaki’s brother as preparation for a career in government, and during her childhood, living in her father’s household, she learned and became proficient in classical Chinese. In her diary she wrote, “When my brother … was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'” With her brother she studied Chinese literature, and she probably also received instruction in more traditional subjects such as music, calligraphy and Japanese poetry. Murasaki’s education was unorthodox.
She married in her mid-to late twenties and gave birth to a daughter before her husband died, two years after they were married. It is uncertain when she began to write The Tale of Genji, but it was probably while she was married or shortly after she was widowed. In about 1005, Murasaki was invited to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Imperial court, probably because of her reputation as a writer. She continued to write during her service, adding scenes from court life to her work. After five or six years, she left court and retired with Shōshi to the Lake Biwa region. Scholars differ on the year of her death; although most agree on 1014, others have suggested she was alive in 1031.
- The Diary of Lady Murasaki, translated from Japanese by Richard Bowring (Penguin Classics, 2005, 144 p.)
- Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, translated from Japanese by Richard Bowring (Princeton University Press, Princeton Library of Asian Translations, a collection of 128 poems, 1985, 310 p.)
- The Tale of Genji, translated by (I) Arthur Waley (Tuttle Publishing, 2010, 1155 p.); (II) Edward G. Seidensticker (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, 1224 p.); (III) Royall Tyler (Penguin Classics, 2002, 1216 p.); (IV) Dennis Washburn’s (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 1360 p.);
- Reading notes on Tyler’s tranlation: