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Imagine. A prince falls in love with a concubine of the emperor, his father. The prince goes through a series of love affairs to forget his unrequited love until he finds a girl who resembles the concubine. He becomes her patron and ends up marrying her. The marriage doesn’t stop his affairs, and finally, he spends some nights with the concubine. Then the concubine gets pregnant. What will the prince do?
If the story sounds too familiar, it’s because it has all the elements of universally popular soap operas. Family disputes, threats to power, opulent high society, star-crossed love affairs, you name it. But the story is not from your aunt’s favorite drama or the Amazon romance novel bestseller list. It’s the plot of The Tale of Genji, the ultimate classic of Japanese literature, the world’s first novel and the first modern psychological novel. Written in the early 11th century. The woman who wrote it is, naturally, the world’s first novelist, Murasaki Shikibu.
As the queen of romance that’s recreated over and over again, Murasaki Shikibu is like the Jane Austen of Japan. Her main character, Hikaru Genji of The Tale of Genji is as quintessentially a Japanese ideal as Fitzgerald Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is English. Both novelists garnered critical acclaim and cross-class popularity, both described the upper class from the inside, and both are featured on banknotes.
The irony is that Murasaki Shikibu doesn’t command the global fame of Jane Austen, even though she wrote 800 years earlier. We don’t yet see fiction like the ‘Jane Austen Book Club’ or movies like ‘Becoming Jane’ about Murasaki Shikibu. So let us fill the gap. Who was this lady, this Mother of Novels?
First of all, Murasaki Shikibu is not her name. In the Heian era of Japan, noble women were addressed by her (if any) or a male family member’s official title, and Shikibu was where her father worked, the Ministry of Ceremonials. Do you smell the blue blood already? And Murasaki was the name of the main character of The Tale of Genji. Do you remember the girl who was raised by and married to Genji? Her name was Murasaki no Ue, the archetype of ideal women adored by Japanese men.
Once The Tale got popular, courtiers affectionately began calling the author Murasaki. Like Mozart to the Viennese court and Leonardo da Vinci to the Milanese court, Murasaki Shikibu was the pride of Empress Shoshi’s court, as a lady-in-waiting and a rare female writer.
It’s not news that famous female writers have been a rare feature in human history. Back then Japanese women couldn’t even learn Chinese, the official language of government. It’s also a common paradox in history that women of higher status had less freedom. Noble women were supposed to marry early, give birth to children, and that was it. Practically a gilded prison.
Murasaki Shikibu’s clan, Fujiwara, dominated court politics by strategically marrying their daughters to emperors. Though her family branch was not in the center of power, her father and grandfather were respected poets. She learned Chinese from eavesdropping on her brother’s education. Unusual for her time, she remained single until her mid-twenties and married a rich friend of her father. Three years later, her husband passed away from cholera, leaving her and her daughter quite a fortune.
Murasaki may have been heartbroken, but she also had much more leisure time. Like at Versailles or in ancient Rome, sophisticated court culture drove the bored Heian noble men and women into endless dramas of courtship and affairs. Murasaki’s husband was an expert in the field himself. She exchanged poetry with Fujiwara no Michinaga, the patriarch of the clan and de facto ruler of the court, after her husband’s death, which led to a flurry of speculation. There’s no evidence, however, that she turned into a social butterfly or a lover.
Instead, she retreated to Ishiyama temple at Lake Biwa and under the August moon was inspired to write a novel, to create a romance as a keen observer.
The time was ripe. Getting out from under the Chinese influence, Japanese literature was budding. Women started to use kana, a Japanese script, instead of Chinese characters for letters and journals, which became the early stage of Japanese literature. Murasaki knew too many bored ladies with too much time, ready to read anything they could get their hands on, and the love life of high society around her provided endless motifs.
Murasaki circulated each chapter of the novel to her friends, who copied it and distributed it in their circles. The self-published novel’s popularity spread like wildfire – or the scent of incense – and Murasaki Shikibu ended up getting invited to the court to serve the Empress.
It was predictable that the Japanese would love this new sensational literature. As mentioned above, it has all the elements. What is surprising, even by today’s standard, is how Murasaki exceeded the direct description of her peers and succeed at analyzing universal psychologies in specific environments. Start with the prince, Hikaru Genji. The series of relationships with all sorts of women could have remained superficial, but his character goes through the agony of first love, obsession over his wife, guilt, and vanity from power, all the layers that make a character multi-dimensional.
Then there are the women, more interesting characters than the title role. The character of Murasaki no Ue may seem problematic, but the motif of ‘a woman sculpted as a man’s ideal’ is not that rare. It is rare to see such character goes through the pain of a wife who is beloved by the husband but does not have a child and the agony of raising a child of your husband and another woman. For the gravity of challenges and the depth of character, it is not farfetched to say Murasaki no Ue is a better-developed character. How did Murasaki Shikibu create such characters in a novel? She couldn’t learn from the precedent since she was the first.
To see the innermost nature of high society, full of lies and schemings, to understand the vanity and weakness of the people who talk in riddles and wear layers of silk, how much she must have observed and reflected? As Jane Austen didn’t like Bath, which was full of the leisure and pretense of English aristocracy, but filled the fantasies of common people with her apt description, Murasaki Shikibu didn’t enjoy life in the imperial court, but her words were meticulous. Probably for the first readers of Emperor and Empress themselves.
From her journal and poems, Murasaki Shikibu seems introverted but strong-willed, sensitive but resilient. Doesn’t it sound like the archetype of a female writer whose times were against her? Beyond time and the culture, smart and perceptive women of words may understand each other.
Murasaki Shikibu created the world of the novel a thousand years ago and her work has become a milestone in world literature. The scenes of her novel were created as popular wood prints for hundreds of years in Japan, and the Japanese girls and boys learned to love her work in school. In the middle of all the global impact, the millennia-long celebration, there was a woman who quietly moved a brush under the moonlight, a woman whom all girls should remember when they doubt the power of pen and words.