Lady Murasaki Shikibu

6.2 Murasaki Shikibu and the World’s First (Great) Novel

Lady Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji is often listed as the world’s first novel. Is it a novel? Is it the first? That’s highly contentious, but whatever you decide, Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote this classic a very long time ago.

This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists. My major sources were The Diary of Lady Murasaki, including the introduction in the Penguin Classic edition, and also Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.

Full Transcript

If you run a Google search on what is the world’s oldest novel, the first hit you will get will say The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. And then if you scroll down you’ll get a bunch of highly indignant sites saying, “No, no, it’s not!”

As far as I can tell, the naysayers fall into two completely contradictory groups. First there is the group that says the novel is a Western concept. Murasaki Shikibu’s genre was monogatari, a Japanese concept. By this definition, the first novel isn’t until much later and naturally in the West, with Don Quixote being a major contender for the prize winner.

I think you can tell what I think about this argument by the fact that I am still including Murasaki Shikibu in my list of novelists. In my view, if it looks like a novel, prints like a novel, reads like a novel: it’s a novel.

And if we needed more convincing, there is the fact that foreign novels translated into Japanese often get the word monogatari attached to them. So for example, A Tale of Two Cities in Japanese is Nito Monogatari.[1] The Lord of the Rings is Yubiwa Monogatari[2] and my personal favorite transliteration: The 1984 translation of To Kill a Mockingbird is called Arabama Monogatari.[3] Probably not pronounced that way but you get the idea.

The second group of naysayers agrees with me. They count The Tale of Genji as a novel because it’s a long piece of fictional prose. The problem is it’s not the first thing to fit that broader definition. Most of the people in this group were curiously nonspecific about titles and authors for these earlier works. But I did find an amusingly written article on Book Riot which lists a couple of earlier ones from Greece and India, not one of which I had ever heard of. I don’t think they are much studied because as in most genres, the majority of the tripe out there is . . . well . . . tripe. I feel quite confident in saying you can be a well-read, well-educated person without knowing about those. Whereas Genji is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece.

So that is why I am calling this episode “Murasaki Shikibu and the World’s First Great Novel,” because “Murasaki Shikibu and the thing that may or may not be a novel and definitely isn’t the first one of whatever it is” seemed a little long and unwieldy.

Murasaki was born about 973 CE. Let me give you a little world context for that. The Normans have not yet invaded England, so English literature has thus far progressed only as far as Beowulf. Not only has Columbus not yet sailed the ocean blue, even Leif Erikson hasn’t quite yet sailed it, at least not as far as the Western Hemisphere. The Maya were on the way out. The Aztecs hadn’t gotten started yet. In China things were a disaster, the 10th century is appropriately named the 5 dynasties and 10 kingdoms period. Not coincidentally, this century also sees the Chinese use gunpowder in battle for the first time in recorded history.

Across the East China Sea, though, Japan was in the Heian period, one of its cultural high points. In previous centuries, Japan had absorbed all things Chinese, and all things Chinese still held a respected place in Japan, but by 973, it had been over a century since Japan had bothered sending envoys to China. China was a mess after all, and anyway Japan was busy: synthesizing what it had taken in and figuring out what to keep and what to modify.

Like the Chinese, the Japanese had an emperor. But at least in this period, the emperor was practically pointless. He had no power, and his only duties were to patronize religion and the arts. The real rulers were the Fujiwara clan, who kept the emperors firmly under their control and handed out ranks, money, privileges, and government positions as they saw fit. They never aspired to be emperors themselves. Instead the Fujiwara’s made sure that the Imperial Consort was always a Fujiwara girl. She’d have a son, hopefully. The clan is would force the emperor to abdicate, in favor of the boy. Who would need a regent, obviously. A Fujiwara regent obviously. And then this new emperor would be given a Fujiwara girl as his consort, etc., and so forth. The odd twist in this system is that unlike in most societies, girls were highly valued. A Fujiwara boy wasn’t worth that much: he couldn’t be married to the emperor. But an attractive girl? She had possibilities.

The most powerful Fujiwara of all was Michinaga, who had several very attractive daughters. But Murasaki was not one of these. Her father was a Fujiwara, but from an obscure and not very important branch of the family. He had an official court position, but not a good one. So Murasaki was in what we might call the middle class for lack of a better word. She was not one of the great ladies destined to catch the eye of the emperor. But neither was she part of the vast majority of Japanese women scratching a subsistence living from the rice fields.

She was given a typical girls’ education, which meant calligraphy, music, and poetry. It very specifically did not mean history, law, philosophy, or Chinese. Knowing anything about these topics was not done by women. And if a girl showed much interest, that was strange and disagreeable. It was not an asset to her marriage prospects.

Murasaki showed interest. When her brother was taught the Chinese classics, she listened in, and she was very good at it. Much better than her brother, in fact. So much so that her father frequently sighed and said what a what a pity it was that she was not born a man. That does not seem to have deterred her. What did deter her was when she became the subject of gossip and people said “It’s bad enough when a man flaunts his Chinese learning. She will come to no good.” After that Murasaki gave it up. She even pretended not to be able to read Chinese. Sadly, she was probably not the first, and definitely not the last, woman pretend to be stupider than she really was.

In 996 CE, Murasaki’s father was appointed as a provincial governor, which was not a compliment. Japan at this time suffered from an acute sense of city superiority. Anybody who was anybody lived in Kyoto, at the capital. A governorship, be it even 10 miles away, was regarded as banishment to a howling wilderness. It’s thought that he took Murasaki with him, but not a lot is known about what either of them did there except that he welcomed 70 Chinese refugees and exchanged poems with them. Given the more recent world refugee crisis, I have to wonder whether poetry was really what these people were most in need of, but that’s what the source says. In 998, Murasaki returned from the exile to get married. This is quite a bit later than we might have expected, but there is no explanation. Maybe it was all the Chinese reading that put the men off. At any rate, the groom was old enough to be her father, and she wasn’t his only wife. Polygamy was perfectly accepted and normal for an aristocratic man. The goal for a woman wasn’t to be the only wife. It was to be the favorite wife. And you can imagine what that did for a peaceful home life.

But we have no details on how that played out in Murasaki’s case. Her daughter was born a year later, and two years after that her husband died, probably in an epidemic. Murasaki returned to her father’s house and it is somewhere in these early years of her widowhood that she began writing The Tale of Genji.

Four or five years later Murasaki entered one of the very few professions open to her: she was taken on as a lady-in-waiting to Shōshi one of the emperor’s consorts. Shōshi was, of course, the daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga. At this time she was only 19 years old, but she had already been married to the Emperor for a good 7 or 8 years. Soon after Murasaki’s arrival, she gave birth to a boy. We have more than one good source for this period, but in part we know this because Murasaki decided to keep a diary, and she describes the celebrations and ceremonies surrounding a new prince in detail. Sadly, she only kept it for about 2 years, but this is where we get a sense of who she really was.

The first section of the diary is not very introspective. It mainly concerns descriptions of various court celebrations and festivities. A few interesting points come through. One is the overriding emphasis on the arts, or what has been called the cult of beauty. The upper classes were basically absentee landlords. While someone somewhere must have been working hard to keep the country running, both the men and the women in Murasaki’s fiction and nonfiction appear to have not really very much to do in the way of business, politics, or whatever. Instead, they are all, both men and women, devoted to the pursuit of beauty in many forms. Not just as patrons of the arts but as creators. Everyone is an amateur artist, and this included forms that you will have thought of, like music and dance. But also art forms like the creation that you may not have thought of like perfume making. Murasaki spends an enormous amount of time describing clothes, giving you all the color combinations, and sometimes letting you know how mortified someone was when they made a mistake with their colors and have 5 cuffs that don’t quite go together. Oh, the shame.

Poetry was held in extremely high esteem. To the extent that you were basically locked out of the upper class society if you weren’t good at producing it, and quickly. The court often held poetry contests, but aside from that it was used in everyday correspondence. The poetic form used was 31 syllables, and if you received a poem from a friend, you had to send one back using the same imagery.

So, for example, Murasaki records that a lady sent her some silk left out on chrysanthemums overnight to collect the dew. It was believed that using such a cloth on your face would rejuvenate you, basically their version of wrinkle cream. In response, Murasaki composed the following poem:

Chrysanthemum dew:

 I brush my sleeve to gain a little youth

 But let she who owns the flower have the thousand years they bring[4]

The sharp-eared among you may have noticed that that was only 30 syllables, not 31, and that’s because it’s in translation. Translating these is a huge problem. In English we don’t have this particular poetic form, and the Japanese of this time highly valued subtlety. Clever word play and beautiful imagery were the primary goals. Clarity was not a goal at all. Added to that the poems were highly situational. You have to know the context to understand it. So despite the huge quantity of poetry flying about, none of it is very accessible to us, unfortunately. But it is relevant because Genji has any number of these poems and also because Murasaki owed her position largely to her ability to compose a beautiful and appropriate poem at a moment’s notice. In a world where sensitivity to beauty was the prime indicator of culture and status, having such a woman in your retinue was well worth her upkeep.

Aside from her poems, there was her magnum opus, The Tale of Genji. Genji is in the traditional Japanese form called Monogatari, which really just means an extended prose narrative (aka a novel). It is true that it was not written all in one frenzied rush of writing. It’s hard to know exactly when she wrote each of the 54 chapters, but since they were separately bound and separately circulated, she didn’t need to write it all at once. But serialization doesn’t make it not a novel, or we couldn’t count much of Charles Dickens’ work as novels. Genji hangs together as one work astonishingly well, even though it covers 3/4 of a century, 4 generations, and 430 characters with complicated relationships, all of whom Murasaki keeps entirely consistent.

In addition, the chapters are bound together thematically: Fujiwara power is one such theme. Impermanence is another. There is a lot of foreshadowing, indicating that Murasaki must have had the outline of the whole more or less in her thoughts early on, even as chapters were published individually.

The reception at the time was favorable. Here is what one 13-year-old girl said in her diary in 1022. It sounds very much to me how some of us used to feel about getting the latest Harry Potter.

“I read [a few of the early chapters of] The Tale of Genji, and I longed to see the later parts . . . But we were still new to the capital and it was not easy to find copies. I was burning with impatience and curiosity, and in my prayers I used to say, “Let me see the whole!” When my parents went to the Kōryū Temple for a retreat, this was the only thing I asked for. Yet all my hopes were in vain.

“I was feeling most dejected about it when one day I called on an aunt of mine who had come up from the country. She received me very affectionately and showed the greatest interest in me. ‘What a pretty girl you’ve grown up to be!’ said she. Then, as I was leaving, she asked ‘What would you like as a present? I am sure you don’t want anything too practical. I’d like to give you something that you will really enjoy.’

“And so it was that she presented me with fifty-odd volumes of The Tale of Genji in a special case . . . Oh, how happy I was when I came home with all these books in a bag! In the past I had only been able to have an occasional flurried look at parts of The Tale of Genji. Now I had it all in front of me and I could lie undisturbed behind my screen, taking the books out one by one and enjoying them to my heart’s content. I wouldn’t have changed places with the Empress herself.”[5]

And it wasn’t just 13 year old girls. Genji was read out loud to the Emperor himself, which was a common way for multiple people to enjoy books at the same time in an age when getting your own copy was laborious. Anyway, the emperor said of the writer “She must have read the Chronicles of Japan! She seems very learned.”

Which by the way was quite true: Genji has thousands of quotes and allusions to history and literature. However, in a not-so-unfamiliar to us display of catty behavior, another lady-in-waiting claimed that Murasaki was flaunting her learning and took to calling her Lady Chronicle, in a nasty sort of way.[6]

Murasaki also suffered another very familiar and humanizing feeling: self-doubt. And we see it more and more in the second section of the diary which is far more personal and introspective than the opening. On one day she wrote:

“I felt both depressed and confused… I was merely amusing myself with fictions, finding solace for my idleness in foolish words… I tried reading the Tale again, but it did not seem to be the same as before and I was disappointed. Those with whom I had discussed things of mutual interest—how vain and frivolous they must consider me now… I was most forlorn.”[7]

This is not the only passage where you see her insecurity. She owned a collection of Chinese books inherited from either her father or husband. “Whenever my loneliness threatens to overwhelm me,” she wrote, “I take out one or two of them to look at: but my women gather together behind my back. ‘It’s because she goes on like this that she is so miserable. What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?'” Murasaki’s initial thought is a snappy comeback, but she doesn’t say it, because even she thinks there is some truth in what they say.[8]

Interestingly enough, the Empress Shoshi was also intrigued by Chinese. Murasaki taught it to her, but secretly, of course.[9]

One glorious side effect of reserving Chinese for men was that Japanese was developed as a written language by women. Every notable Japanese writer of this period was a woman, and there are others besides Murasaki Shikibu.

Of them all, though, Murasaki Shikibu is the queen. The Tale of Genji is twice as long as War and Peace, but it is absolutely dwarfed by the number of words that have been written about it. Genji scholarship has been an academic battleground since medieval times, with scholar spending their lives drawing complicated genealogical charts for the characters and arguing fiercely with each other over psychological interpretations.

We know nothing about Murasaki’s later years. The diary ends, sadly. She probably died between 1014 and 1025. Under what circumstances, we have no idea. But her work took on a life of its own, and the glittering world of the Heian aristocracy is accessible to us largely through her work, as the worlds’ first great novelist.

My major sources for today were The Diary of Lady Murasaki and Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince. Both were fabulous and I will put links on the website. Find me on Twitter at her underscore half or on Facebook as Her Half of History. If you can tell a friend or give me a rating, those are the best ways to support the show. Come back next week for the ever popular Jane Austen. Thanks!




[4] Diary, 7.

[5] Quoted in Morris, 263.

[6] Diary, 57

[7] Diary, 34

[8] Diary, 55

[9] Morris, 257


  1. Murasaki’s life sounds similar to Sei Shonagon, whose Pillow Book I own and have read. The Penguin Classics version I own has, as its cover, a detail from something called the Genji Scroll at the Goto Museum in Tokyo. Did Murasaki’s book also have visual art in it?


    • That is a good question, and I’m not sure of the answer. There are no extant copies of Murasaki’s original, so there may be no way to know whether she had anything visual in it, but certainly it was illustrated many times later.


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