Tale of Genji

The 'Tale of the Genji' or Genji Monogatari, written in the 11th century CE by Murasaki Shikibu, a court lady, is Japan's oldest novel and possibly the first novel in world literature. The classic of Japanese literature, the work describes the life and loves of Prince Genji and is noted for its rich characterisation and vivid descriptions of life in the Japanese imperial court. The work famously reproduces the line 'the sadness of things' over 1,000 times and has been tremendously influential on Japanese literature and thinking ever since it was written. The 'Tale of Genji' continues to be retranslated into modern Japanese on a regular basis so that its grip on the nation's imagination shows no sign of loosening.

Murasaki Shikibu

The work's author is considered to be a lady of the imperial court by the name of Murasaki Shikibu who wrote it over several years and completed it around 1020 CE during the Heian period (794-1185 CE). Murasaki is also known as To no Shikibu. Murasaki was a nickname and shikibu means 'secretariat,' which was the role of her father as in ancient Japan it was common to call a daughter by her father's position. She was a member of the Fujiwara clan. Her birth is accepted as around 973 CE and her death after 1013 CE, the date of the last mention of her in court documents. Details of her life are sketchy except that her father was Fujiwara no Tametoki, a provincial governor, and that she married a fellow Fujiwara clan member, one Fujiwara no Nobutaka, with whom she had one daughter, Daini no Sammi. Murasaki's husband died in 1001 CE, and she then became a lady-in-waiting (nyobo) to Empress Akiko (aka Shoshi) where she displayed great talent in the arts, particularly calligraphy, the harp (koto), painting, and poetry. Besides the novel, other surviving works by Murasaki include poems and her diary.

The novel describes life in the Japanese imperial court, its etiquette & intrigues, &, above all, the central character of Prince Genji.

Genji Monogatari

The Japanese title Genji Monogatari may be translated as 'The Tale of Prince Genji.' It consists of 54 chapters and 750,000 words, although the final 13 chapters are regarded as a later addition by a minority of scholars principally because the story then no longer concerns Genji but his son Kaoru and takes on a darker tone. Neither do scholars entirely agree on the order of the chapters as many seem like later insertions by the author and several are parallel chapters or narabi where events occur not after but contemporary with the events described in earlier 'ordinary' chapters (hon no maki).

The novel describes life in the Japanese imperial court, its etiquette and intrigues, and, above all, the central character of Prince Genji who is the perfect gentleman in looks and deed. Genji's relations, love affairs, and transition from youth to middle age are all captured by Murasaki's astute writing which combines romanticism and realism in equal measure to capture a timeless treatment of human relations and the general impermanence of all things. The following summary highlights the Genji Monogatari's contribution to world literature:

Earlier "novels" had too closely resembled fairy tales, or else were realistic but had no feeling for the complexity and capacity for development of their characters. Murasaki Shikibu's book, though imaginative fiction, is both descriptively and psychologically true to life. It deals with society as it was and people as they were. This remarkable woman had independently developed the novel as a true literary form. (Mason, 96)

In her own words Murasaki describes this discovery:

But I have a theory of my own about what this art of the novel happens because the storyteller's own experience of men and things, whether for good or ill - not only what he has passed through himself, but even events which he has only witnessed or been told of - has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart. Again and again something in his own life or that around him will seem to the writer so important that he cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. (Mason, 96)

The book is written in a notoriously complex style with frequent poetic ambiguity and over 800 inserted poems, but it was an instant success and quickly gained its reputation as a timeless classic. It has been read, studied, alluded to, quoted extensively, and imitated in countless subsequent Japanese literary works and theatre ever since. Beautiful editions were made with painted illustrations besides the calligraphy, an art, of course, in itself. Indeed, the oldest scroll paintings (onnae) from Japan, and some would say the finest, are 19 illustrations (each 21.8 cms high) from an abridged edition of the Genji Monagatari believed to have been painted in the 1120s or 1130s CE.

The Tale of Genji: A Summary

Part 1

The 'Tale of Genji' covers the lifetime of Prince Genji and then his descendants, which is a period of some 70 years. The story is set at the height of the Heian period during the reign of Emperor Daigo, 897-930 CE. Prince Hikaru Genji is the son of an emperor but not in direct line to the throne. Although Genji is a fictional character there was a similar figure with a similar story in the imperial court, one Minamoto no Takaakira, the tenth son of Emperor Daigo, and he would have been known both to Murasaki and her readers.

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We begin with the birth of Genji and are informed that his mother, Kiritsubo, has a low status at court and is mistreated by the emperor's other wives. Kiritsubo dies when Genji is only three. An expert in divination from Korea predicts that if ever Genji acquires the throne the state will suffer a disaster. Kokiden, consort of the emperor, is also a jealous enemy of Genji. The emperor responds to the prophecy by making the prince a commoner with the surname Minamoto or Genji. However, the emperor loves Genji very much and permits him to reside in the royal palace.

Genji: 'If it weren't for old romances like this, how on earth would you get through these long tedious days when time moves so slowly?' (Keene, 491)

The emperor then finds a woman, Fujitsubo, who closely resembles Kiritsubo, and invites her to court to be his first consort. A real beauty, Genji falls desperately in love with his stepmother but, aged 12, he marries Aoi, six years his senior. Bewitched by Fujitsubo, Genji's marriage is a failure. He has numerous affairs, most significantly with a lowly girl called Murasaki who resembles Fujitsubo and who he will later marry. Genji has two sons, one with Aoi, called Yugiri, and another with his stepmother, who, recognised as the emperor's own, will become the future Emperor Reizei. Genji is ashamed of his affair with Fujitsubo, but when Reizei discovers his true father, he gives Genji the great honour of a rank equal to that of a retired emperor. This is recompense for Genji's earlier exile to Suma (where he whiled away the time in an affair with the Lady of Akashi, the former governor's daughter).

Genji & Lady Rokujo: "At last the night ended in such a dawn as seemed to have been fashioned for their especial delight. 'Sad is any parting at the red of dawn; but never since the world began, gleamed day so tragically in the autumn sky', and as he recited these verses, aghast to leave her, he stood hesitating and laid her hand tenderly in his." (Keene, 499)

The autumn flowers were fading; along the reeds by the river the shrill voices of many insects blended with the mournful fluting of the wind in the pines. (Keene, 498)

Part 2

Emperor Suzaku, now retired, asks Genji to marry his third daughter as he is concerned for her future well-being. Genji, whose first wife Aoi died in childbirth thanks to the evil wishes of a former lover Lady Rokujo, consents to the request, but the girl is also the niece of Fujitsubo. Genji's other wife Murasaki is jealous despite Genji's explanation for his actions and repetition of his feelings for her, his true love. Nevertheless, Murasaki expresses a wish to become a nun but first falls ill and dies. Meanwhile, the princess has an affair with Kashiwagi, the son of Genji's best friend To no Chujo. Genji is then forced to accept into his family the child which results from this illicit liaison, Kaoru.

Part 3

The final part of the book, comprising 10 chapters often called the Uji chapters (the location of this part of the story), is set after the death of Genji and relates the problems and intrigues which beset his descendants, in particular, Kaoru his son and Niou, Genji's grandson. Both of these men, after dallying with two princesses, Oigimi and Nakanokimi, fall in love with the same woman, Ukifune, half-sister to the princesses. Both male characters pale in comparison to the superlative character of Genji. Ukifune, caught in an impossible situation, attempts suicide but fails and becomes a nun, refusing to see her former lovers. There the tale ends.

This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Aoi no Ue

Aoi no Ue ( 葵の上 ) is a fictional character in The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari). Daughter of the Minister of the Left (Tō no Chūjō's sister) and Genji’s first principal wife, she marries Genji when she is sixteen and he only twelve. Proud and distant from her husband, Aoi is constantly aware of the age difference between them and very much hurt by Genji's philandering. For a short while, after giving birth to Genji's son, Yūgiri, and suffering episodes of spirit possession, does Aoi actually appear appealing in Genji's eyes. The episode of spirit possession itself (mono no ke) is extremely controversial and brings forward two female characters of the tale: Aoi (Genji's wife) and Lady Rokujō (Genji's mistress). The relationship between the two women may be that between victim and aggressor, if one follows the traditional interpretation of spirit possession, [1] or that between accomplices expressing their discontent with the Heian system of polygynous marriage (and with Genji, obviously). [2] Aoi dies at the end of the "Aoi" chapter and her exit from the tale is thus definitive.

Aoi no Ue is also the title of a Noh play about her, translated as Lady of the Court, or in the modern version by Yukio Mishima, The Lady Aoi. [3]

Pioneering electronic music composers Joji Yuasa [4] and Toshiro Mayuzumi [5] both composed a piece entitled Aoi no Ue.

Aoi Ue also appears as a character in the Salman Rushdie 1995 novel, The Moor's Last Sigh. [6]

  1. ^ Royall Tyler tends to interpret spirit possession at face value, at least in the case of another female character, Ukifune. Tyler, Royall and Susan. "The Possession of Ukifune". Asiatica Venetiana, 5 (2002): 177–209.
  2. ^ Doris Bargen, A Woman's Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
  3. ^ Barnes, Nancy J. (1989). "Lady Rokujō's Ghost: Spirit Possession, Buddhism, and Healing in Japanese Literature". Literature and Medicine. 8: 106–121. doi:10.1353/lm.2011.0101. S2CID932296. 376707.
  4. ^
  5. "Joji Yuasa 1929- List of Works" . Retrieved 2020-08-18 .
  6. ^
  7. Loubet, Emmanuelle Roads, Curtis Robindoré, Brigitte (1997). "The Beginnings of Electronic Music in Japan, with a Focus on the NHK Studio: The 1950s and 1960s". Computer Music Journal. 21 (4): 11–22. doi:10.2307/3681132. JSTOR3681132.
  8. ^
  9. Vidya, V. (2017). "The Saga of Saying and Unsaying: A Reconnaissance of Woman Characters in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh". International Journal of Asian History, Culture and Tradition. 4 (5): 1–22.

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Murasaki was writing at the height of the Fujiwara clan's power—Fujiwara no Michinaga was the Regent in all but name, and the most significant political figure of his day. Consequently, Murasaki is believed to have partially informed the character of Genji through her experience of Michinaga.

The Tale of Genji may have been written chapter by chapter in installments, as Murasaki delivered the tale to aristocratic women (ladies-in-waiting). It has many elements found in a modern novel: a central character and a very large number of major and minor characters, well-developed characterization of all the major players, a sequence of events covering the central character's lifetime and beyond. There is no specified plot, but events happen and characters simply grow older. Despite a dramatis personæ of some four hundred characters, it maintains internal consistency for instance, all characters age in step and the family and feudal relationships stay intact throughout.

One complication for readers and translators of the Genji is that almost none of the characters in the original text is given an explicit name. The characters are instead referred to by their function or role (e.g. Minister of the Left), an honorific (e.g. His Excellency), or their relation to other characters (e.g. Heir Apparent), which changes as the novel progresses. This lack of names stems from Heian-era court manners that would have made it unacceptably familiar and blunt to freely mention a person's given name. Modern readers and translators have used various nicknames to keep track of the many characters.

The debate over how much of Genji was actually written by Murasaki Shikibu has gone on for centuries and is unlikely to ever be settled unless some major archival discovery is made. It is generally accepted that the tale was finished in its present form by 1021, when the author of the Sarashina Nikki wrote a diary entry about her joy at acquiring a complete copy of the tale. She writes that there are over 50 chapters and mentions a character introduced at the end of the work, so if other authors besides Murasaki Shikibu did work on the tale, the work was finished very near to the time of her writing. Murasaki Shikibu's own diary includes a reference to the tale, and indeed the application to herself of the name 'Murasaki' in an allusion to the main female character. That entry confirms that some if not all of the diary was available in 1008 when internal evidence suggests convincingly that the entry was written. [4]

Lady Murasaki is said to have written the character of Genji based on the Minister on the Left at the time she was at court. Other translators, such as Tyler, believe the character Murasaki no Ue, whom Genji marries, is based on Murasaki Shikibu herself.

Yosano Akiko, the first author to make a modern Japanese translation of Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had only written chapters 1 to 33, and that chapters 35 to 54 were written by her daughter Daini no Sanmi. [5] Other scholars have also doubted the authorship of chapters 42 to 54 (particularly 44, which contains rare examples of continuity mistakes). [5] According to Royall Tyler's introduction to his English translation of the work, recent computer analysis has turned up "statistically significant" discrepancies of style between chapters 45–54 and the rest, and also among the early chapters. [5]

Genji's mother dies when he is three years old, and the Emperor cannot forget her. The Emperor Kiritsubo then hears of a woman (Lady Fujitsubo), formerly a princess of the preceding emperor, who resembles his deceased concubine, and later she becomes one of his wives. Genji loves her first as a stepmother, but later as a woman, and they fall in love with each other. Genji is frustrated by his forbidden love for the Lady Fujitsubo and is on bad terms with his own wife (Aoi no Ue, the Lady Aoi). He engages in a series of love affairs with other women. These are however unfulfilling, as in most cases his advances are rebuffed, or his lover dies suddenly, or he becomes bored.

Genji visits Kitayama, a rural hilly area north of Kyoto, where he finds a beautiful ten-year-old girl. He is fascinated by this little girl (Murasaki), and discovers that she is a niece of the Lady Fujitsubo. Finally he kidnaps her, brings her to his own palace and educates her to be like the Lady Fujitsubo, who is his womanly ideal. During this time Genji also meets Lady Fujitsubo secretly, and she bears his son, Reizei. Everyone except the two lovers believes the father of the child is the Emperor Kiritsubo. Later the boy becomes the Crown Prince and Lady Fujitsubo becomes the Empress, but Genji and Lady Fujitsubo swear to keep the child's true parentage secret.

Genji and his wife, Lady Aoi, reconcile. She gives birth to a son but dies soon after. Genji is sorrowful but finds consolation in Murasaki, whom he marries. Genji's father, the Emperor Kiritsubo, dies. He is succeeded by his son Suzaku, whose mother (Kokiden), together with Kiritsubo's political enemies, take power in the court. Then another of Genji's secret love affairs is exposed: Genji and a concubine of the Emperor Suzaku are discovered while meeting in secret. The Emperor Suzaku confides his personal amusement at Genji's exploits with the woman (Oborozukiyo), but is duty-bound to punish Genji even though he is his half-brother. He exiles Genji to the town of Suma in rural Harima Province (now part of Kobe in Hyōgo Prefecture). There, a prosperous man known as the Akashi Novice (because he is from Akashi in Settsu Province) entertains Genji, and Genji has an affair with Akashi's daughter. She gives birth to Genji's only daughter, who will later become the Empress.

In the capital the Emperor Suzaku is troubled by dreams of his late father, Kiritsubo, and something begins to affect his eyes. Meanwhile, his mother, Kokiden, grows ill, which weakens her influence over the throne, and leads to the Emperor ordering Genji to be pardoned. Genji returns to Kyoto. His son by Lady Fujitsubo, Reizei, becomes the emperor. The new Emperor Reizei knows Genji is his real father, and raises Genji's rank to the highest possible.

However, when Genji turns 40 years old, his life begins to decline. His political status does not change, but his love and emotional life begin to incrementally diminish as middle age takes hold. He marries another wife, the Third Princess (known as Onna san no miya in the Seidensticker version, or Nyōsan in Waley's). Genji's nephew, Kashiwagi, later forces himself on the Third Princess, and she bears Kaoru (who, in a similar situation to that of Reizei, is legally known as the son of Genji). Genji's new marriage changes his relationship with Murasaki, who had expressed her wish of becoming a nun (bikuni) though the wish was rejected by Genji.

Genji's beloved Murasaki dies. In the following chapter, Maboroshi ("Illusion"), Genji contemplates how fleeting life is. Immediately after the chapter titled Maboroshi, there is a chapter titled Kumogakure ("Vanished into the Clouds"), which is left blank, but implies the death of Genji.

Chapter 45–54 are known as the "Uji Chapters". These chapters follow Kaoru and his best friend, Niou. Niou is an imperial prince, the son of Genji's daughter, the current Empress now that Reizei has abdicated the throne, while Kaoru is known to the world as Genji's son but is in fact fathered by Genji's nephew. The chapters involve Kaoru and Niou's rivalry over several daughters of an imperial prince who lives in Uji, a place some distance away from the capital. The tale ends abruptly, with Kaoru wondering if Niou is hiding Kaoru's former lover away from him. Kaoru has sometimes been called the first anti-hero in literature. [6]

The tale has an abrupt ending. Opinions vary on whether this was intended by the author. Arthur Waley, who made the first English translation of the whole of The Tale of Genji, believed that the work as we have it was finished. Ivan Morris, however, author of The World of the Shining Prince, believed that it was not complete and that later chapters were missing. Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation of the Genji, believed that Murasaki Shikibu had not had a planned story structure with an ending as such but would simply have continued writing as long as she could.

Because it was written to entertain the Japanese court of the eleventh century, the work presents many difficulties to modern readers. First and foremost, Murasaki's language, Heian period court Japanese, was highly inflected and had very complex grammar. Another problem is that naming people was considered rude in Heian court society, so none of the characters are named within the work instead, the narrator refers to men often by their rank or their station in life, and to women often by the color of their clothing, or by the words used at a meeting, or by the rank of a prominent male relative. This results in different appellations for the same character depending on the chapter.

Another aspect of the language is the importance of using poetry in conversations. Modifying or rephrasing a classic poem according to the current situation was expected behavior in Heian court life, and often served to communicate thinly veiled allusions. The poems in the Genji are often in the classic Japanese tanka form. Many of the poems were well known to the intended audience, so usually only the first few lines are given and the reader is supposed to complete the thought themselves, much like today we could say "when in Rome . " and leave the rest of the saying (". do as the Romans do") unspoken. [7]

As with most Heian literature, Genji was probably written mostly (or perhaps entirely) in kana (Japanese phonetic script) and not in kanji, because it was written by a woman for a female audience. Writing in kanji was at the time a masculine pursuit women were generally discreet when using kanji, confining themselves mostly to native Japanese words (yamato kotoba).

Outside of vocabulary related to politics and Buddhism, Genji contains remarkably few Chinese loan words (kango). This has the effect of giving the story a very even, smooth flow. However, it also introduces confusion: there are a number of homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different meanings), and for modern readers, context is not always sufficient to determine which meaning was intended.

Outline Edit

The novel is traditionally divided into three parts, the first two dealing with the life of Genji and the last with the early years of two of Genji's prominent descendants, Niou and Kaoru. There are also several short transitional chapters which are usually grouped separately and whose authorships are sometimes questioned.

  1. Genji's rise and fall
    1. Youth, chapters 1–33: Love, romance, and exile
    2. Success and setbacks, chapters 34–41: A taste of power and the death of his beloved wife

    The 54th and last chapter, "The Floating Bridge of Dreams", is sometimes argued by modern scholars to be a separate part from the Uji part. It seems to continue the story from the previous chapters but has an unusually abstract chapter title. It is the only chapter whose title has no clear reference within the text, although this may be due to the chapter being unfinished. This question is made more difficult by the fact that we do not know exactly when the chapters acquired their titles.

    List of chapters Edit

    The English translations here are taken from the Arthur Waley, the Edward Seidensticker, the Royall Tyler, and the Dennis Washburn translations. It is not known for certain when the chapters acquired their titles. Early mentions of the Tale refer to chapter numbers, or contain alternate titles for some of the chapters. This may suggest that the titles were added later. The titles are largely derived from poetry that is quoted within the text, or allusions to various characters.

    Notable among themes is the illustration of unique livelihoods of high courtiers at the time of the Heian period. This illustration also qualifies the social constraints and liberties which men and women faced in the Heian period, as shall be seen forthwith. Social Constraints Which Compelled Elite Men and Women to Negotiate As Part of Their Privileged Status In the Tale of Genji, there are particular sorts of social constraints which compelled men and women to negotiate as part of a privileged status.

    In the Genji Monogatari, it is the concept and reality of class and class consciousness. She is not able to fit into the life in palace, despite being the queen, Lady Kiritsubo. As is provided for by Seidensticker, the grand ladies in the palace regard her as a presumptuous upstart while ladies who hold lesser or lower social standing than Lady Kiritsubo are resentful towards her. The gravity of this development is portrayed as being highly potent since the same affects the queen’s psychosocial life: she falls ill and becomes more frequently at home, than at the palace1.

    Again, it is indisputable that life’s natural courses are constraints and forces which compel men to negotiate as part of their privileged status. Since man must die, he has to genetically propagate himself and his genes. Marriage is the environment in which propagation is done, and love is the force which creates this environment and also sustains it. To get into marriage, all like Emperor Kiritsubo had to negotiate with their fiances or girlfriends. Despite the glaring disparity of fortunes, Emperor Kiritsubo falls in love with Lady Kiritsubo, marries her and sires Genji with her.

    At a certain point, Emperor Kiritsubo, Emperor Suzaku, Kokiden, Lady Fujitsubo and Genji die. One of these constraints is the integration of individuals to their occupation, in lieu of their personality and character. To this effect, none of the characters in the original texts are assigned explicit names. All characters are referred to, in relation to their roles, their social standing and the relations that these characters have with other characters. This is the case so that there is the Minister to the Left, His Excellency and the Heir-Apparent, respectively2.

    While this development above may soothe the ego of aristocrats and people with reputable occupations, it may also serve as a source of stigma to those who are less privileged in the society. In the same wavelength, referring to people by their character may subject the same to prejudice and stigma too strong to allow them the power and chance to reform. Anyone who is always and consistently referred to as a thief may not see the need to reform as that label is permanently stuck on him. The same may also entrench classicism since those who are poor and weak in the society are referred to as such.

    The elite are always referred to by their honorifics and thereby entrenching their sense of self importance. The Greatest Sources of Freedom (Or Joy) and the Greatest Constraints on Individual Identity That Men And Women Faced In This Age, As Seen In the Novel Some of the greatest freedoms which men and women enjoy in the Heian Period are biologically induced, meaning that because of biological reasons, certain

    The Tale of Genji

    The Tale of Genji is a historical literary work. It was written in the middle of the Heian era in Japan (around 800 to 1400 AD) and is based in the city of Kyoto at that time. It was written over 1000 years ago so it is very old. It has been very popular for a long time.

    Murasaki Shikibu

    The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu who had talent as a writer and poet .Those talents were recognized by a number of people and she served the Emperor’s daughter. The Tale of Genji was written at that time. In those days, Heian nationalism was very influential. It was the Japanese original noble culture, and kana script in this way developed. Kana is the original and formal Japanese script and derives from the kanji script which was originally from China and is also used in Korea too. Therefore, kana script is used in The Tale of Genji.

    The Story

    The tale of Genji is an epic romance story, comprised of 54 volumes. Those volumes are separated from part 1 to part 3. In addition, this story is written in Japanese style, intermixed with waka poetry. There are many characters in this story and most of them are nobles of the Heian era. This story is written about their loves. So it has been written realistic of the aristocracy culture. The novel’s hero is Hikaru Genji who is a son of the emperor. He was very handsome and was in love with many girls in his lifetime. But he often had affairs with many girls and he has been explained the pain time. Uji is the main stage of the second half of the story and the next hero is the son of Hikaru Genji .Uji is very important in this story. There is a museum and there are sightseeing spots related to the Tale of Genji in Uji. We can realize the history there.


    The Tale of Genji is called the greatest masterpiece in the history of Japanese literature. However, not all people could read it when it was first written and it was mainly nobles who read it in the Middle Ages. Therefore other nations were not able to obtain it either. It was around the Edo era when print technology developed in Japan and the common people came to be able to have it in their hand. Many people were able to read it because Akiko Yosano translated it into the contemporary Japanese language.

    Now The Tale of Genji is not only a literary work but represented in comics and movies. As a result, it is known by both young and old people. It was in about 1882 that The Tale of Genji was first translated into English and The Tale of Genji has now been translated into many foreign languages. Therefore, it is a work that is loved not only in Japan but around the world.

    The Tale of Genji

    The Tale of Genji is thought to be the first written work of fiction in the world. It is uncertain whether Shikibu wrote the complex story in a couple of years or over decades, but what is certain is that this comprehensive piece of literature is a portrait of the Heian aristocracy in all its complicated hierarchies and polyamorous tendencies.

    What’s even more impressive is that despite the long list of characters and appearances throughout the book, the story still only surrounds what was at the time less than 1% of the population, the highest elites.

    Reading through the chapters allows for a vivid idea of what it was to be a man or a woman in the Heian period along with the attached expectations. The protagonist, Genji, is the archetype of a hero of the period, the perfect man. Son of an ancient emperor, his right to the throne was removed and he was demoted to a commoner, when he changed his name to Morimoto.

    The Tale of Genji essentially follows his numerous sexual adventures with various women from the aristocratic circles. While it might seem like a trivial story, the cultural importance of the novel rests in its infinitely rich subtext, which reveals the surprisingly restricted lives of the women Genji crosses path with while he, in contrast, wanders the kingdom.

    Besides many suggestions of a male-dominated society, the novel is proof of something that might be even more crucial: women undeniably played a great role in the propagation of the arts. In fact, while the Heian period saw many failed attempts to revolutionize Japanese governmental policies, what is left of it is a rich attachment to culture that Japanese society still holds on to today.

    The prose and poetry written in hiragana by women of the court meant that lower classes (though not quite peasantry yet) could enjoy them, too. In other words, the Heian period is seen as a time when the art world in Japan was born and throve infinitely from then on. Not only is Shibiku an important historical figure because of her legacy in Eastern and international literature, but she is a symbol of a time in Japan when women were succeeding in ways that had never been seen before.

    Imperial Consort Yang Guifei – The tragic love story that inspired The Tale of Genji

    Imperial Consort Yang Guifei as portrayed in Lady of the Dynasty (2015)(Screenshot/fair use)

    Yang Guifei was known as one of the four most beautiful women in Ancient China. She is famous for being the subject of the famous poem of the Tang Dynasty, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” Her love story with Emperor Xuanzong also served as the basis for The Tale of Genji . She was once the wife of Emperor Xuanzong’s son, Li Mao. However, the emperor became smitten with her and eventually took her for himself. As Emperor Xuanzong’s imperial consort, she enjoyed a life of extravagance. However, she eventually became a victim of courtly intrigue and was forced to commit suicide. Her legendary romance with Emperor Xuanzong would inspire many writers to tell her story that would last for centuries.

    Yang Guifei was originally named Yang Yuhuan. Yang Yuhuan’s birthplace is still up to debate among historians. Some say she was born in Yongle, Puzhou (modern-day Ruicheng in Shanxi province). [1] Others say she was born in Shu. [2] Whatever the case of her birth, she grew up in Yongle. At an early age, her father died, and she was left in the care of her uncle, Yang Xuangi. [3]

    In 736, Yang Yuhuan married the sixteen-year-old Li Mao, the Prince of Shu. [4] Li Mao was the eighteenth son of Emperor Xuanzong. Because Li Mao’s mother falsely accused Emperor Xuanzong’s three sons of treason, his father neglected him and did not make him the heir apparent. [5]

    It was when Yang Yuhuan was nineteen that she met the fifty-three-year-old Emperor Xuanzong. The emperor became smitten with her and decided to have her for himself. [6] Because there would be outrage in the court for taking his son’s wife, Emperor Xuanzong made his son give her up and made her a Daoist nun. [7] This was to buy him some time as he planned to make Yang Yuhuan his concubine without upsetting the court. Yang Yuhuan resided in the Daoist Temple which was on palace grounds. Under this disguise, she would make nightly visits to the Emperor’s bedchamber which she would do over the period of seven years. [8]

    In 745, after Li Mao had taken a new wife. Yang Yuhuan was transferred into Emperor Xuanzong’s harem. She was appointed to the rank of Guifei, which meant honoured imperial consort. [9] As Yang Guifei became the emperor’s favourite, she started to promote her family. Her parents were honoured posthumously, and her three elder sisters were given a title. [10] Her cousin was made prime minister. Tang historians place the blame on Yang Guifei’s cousin because his role as prime minister is what would lead to imperial decline and rebellion. [11] Thus, the Yang family became a clique and enjoyed a life of privilege and luxury. [12]

    Now that Yang Guifei received all the attention from the emperor and had no rivals, Yang Guifei lived a life of extravagance and indulgence. She had seven hundred silk weavers and embroidery workers that were specifically assigned to make her garments. [13] Every time she rode a horse, the most powerful eunuch in the palace would hold the bridle for himself. Yang Guifei also loved lychees. Emperor Xuanzong would send imperial edicts to officials in both Lingnan and Chuan-dong (two cities known for their lychees and hundreds of miles away from the capital of Chang’an) to deliver the lychees by rapid horses so that they would be fresh by the time they were served to Yang Guifei. [14] The rapid haste of the journey made the officials extremely fatigued. [15] Yang Guifei also received lavish gifts from the emperor, one of them was an exotic white bird. [16]

    Yang Guifei also shared Emperor Xuanzong’s love for the arts. The emperor wrote musical compositions. Yang Guifei was an excellent pipa player and dancer. [17] While Yang Guifei was not known for her poetry, she is attributed to have composed, “Ode to Zhang Yunrong Dancing”. [18] The poem goes:

    “Silken sleeves stirring with incessant fragrance,

    Red lotus lilies waving to and fro in the autumn mist.

    A sudden breeze disperses the gentle clouds resting above the mountains,

    Delicate willows brush the water by the pool’s edge.” [19]

    Even though Yang Guifei was the emperor’s favourite, this does not mean that Yang Guifei’s relationship with the emperor was all rosy. There were at least two occasions that the emperor showed displeasure with her and banished her from the palace. [20] The reason for her first banishment was because she showed jealousy when the emperor took an interest in one of the palace ladies. [21] She was sent to live with her cousin. [22] However, her banishment didn’t last long when she was recalled back because the emperor realised he could not live without her. [23] The second reason Yang Guifei was banished was that she overstepped a boundary. She played a jade flute that belonged to a relative of Emperor Xuanzong. [24] Her banishment from the palace was also brief. She sent a lock of her hair to the emperor. The emperor feared that she would harm herself and immediately recalled her back to the palace. [25] The shortness of her banishments shows Yang Guifei’s lasting influence on the emperor and her hold on him.

    Because of Yang Guifei’s influence on the emperor, many officials tried to win her support in order to get high positions within in the court. [26] One of these officials was An Lushan, a general and military governor of the frontier districts. [27] Yang Guifei promoted him, thinking that he was harmless and amiable. [28] However, An Lushan desired the imperial throne for himself. He began to recruit men to enlarge his army. [29] After a series of natural disasters, in the winter of 755 A.D., An Lushan launched a rebellion in order to “rid the court of evil ministers.” [30] His rebel army took over the capital city of Chang’an and An Lushan proclaimed himself emperor. Emperor Xuanzong, Yang Guifei, and the prime minister fled the palace to Sichuan. When the army caught up with them, they killed the prime minister and demanded to kill Yang Guifei. Fearing for his life, the scared emperor was forced in humiliation to consent to Yang Guifei’s death. [31] Yang Guifei bade the emperor farewell and hung herself. [32] She was only thirty-eight.

    After her death, she was buried on the side of a post road. In the same year, Emperor Xuanzong abdicated in favour of one of his sons. The new Tang Emperor brought back Yang Guifei’s body and reburied her in Chang’an. [33] He also asked his artisan-painters to create a portrait of Yang Guifei and hang it in the palace. He would stare at the portrait of Yang Guifei every day of his life. [34]

    Yang Guifei has been portrayed in Chinese culture as the woman who brought down the Tang dynasty. [35] The reason is that after the An Lushan rebellion, the dynasty slowly decayed until it fell in 907 A.D. [36] However, she is also seen as a victim of courtly intrigues. [37] The Tang poet, Bai Juyi wrote about her in his poem, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” [38] The poem became very popular in Japan. The Japanese know her as Yokihi. She is also the inspiration for The Tale of Genji , which begins with the doomed love between an emperor and his consort. [39]

    Clements, Jonathan. “The Tragedy of Yang Guifei.” A History of the Silk Road , Armchair

    Peterson, Barbara Bennett, editor. “Yang Guifei.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to

    the Early Twentieth Century , Routledge, 2015.

    “Yang Guifei (719—56).” Princeton University, Princeton University,

    Robin, Sally A. (Rubenstein). “Yang, Honored Consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.”

    Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 , edited by Lily

    Thoughts on healing from the Heian Period

    At the end of a very sick year our thoughts turn to healing.

    “Genji, who was suffering from a recurrent fever, had all sorts of spells cast and healing rites done, but to no avail.”

    “Naturally,” we say today. “Of what avail can spells and rites possibly be?” We look to doctors and scientists for cures. We would have seemed very strange to the Japanese of the Heian Period (794-1185). Healing divorced from Taoist lore and Buddhist prayer would have drawn as much scorn from them as their invocations and exorcisms do from us.

    Genji is the eponymous hero of court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s classic 11th-century novel, “The Tale of Genji.” He is a son of the reigning emperor — handsome beyond description, artistic beyond compare, amorous beyond restraint, and so winning in all his ways that his very faults become virtues. And he has fallen ill.

    His retainers hear of a holy recluse in a mountain cave outside Heian-kyo, the capital, present-day Kyoto. “Last summer,” they tell him, “when the fever was widespread and spells failed to help, he healed many people immediately.” An expedition is arranged. The ascetic, “a most saintly man,” prepares “the necessary talismans” — slips of paper on which are inscribed sacred Sanskrit syllables. Genji swallows them, and the sage “goes through his spells and incantations.” They are effective. The evil spirit withdraws. Genji’s health is restored.

    Evil spirits were the bane of premodern people’s lives. They were to them what microorganisms are to us. Holy rites were premodern vaccines. But healers were psychologists too, in their way. The sage ministering to Genji counsels, “It (the fever) is too much on your mind. You must try to think of something else.”

    A distraction duly presents itself — herself, rather: a pretty little girl glimpsed in a nearby cottage. Perhaps she merits as much credit for the cure as the sage does. Genji determines to be a father to her, preparatory to being her husband. Heian sexual morality takes a little getting used to.

    Decades later she is the love of Genji’s life, his favorite though not his only consort — and she is dying. Her name is Murasaki (not to be confused with the author). Genji, in despair, encourages her in terms that recall the sage: “Everything will be all right if only we manage to think so. When we take the broad easy view we are happy. … It is the calm ones who survive.”

    Exorcists, meanwhile, are hard at work. “The malign spirit suddenly yielded after so many tenacious weeks and passed from Murasaki to the little girl who was serving as medium.”

    The spirit declares herself. Long dead, she has nurtured in the afterworld the malice that consumed her in life after Genji seduced and then neglected her. Other of Genji’s ladies had died mysteriously, victims of her jealous rage. This time the rites are of such intensity, or the priestly exorcists of such holiness, that her malevolence falters. She is undone. “Pray for me,” she pleads. “Pray that my sins be forgiven. These services, these holy texts, are an unremitting torment.”

    Murasaki’s recovery proved short-lived. Within months she was dead. Possession was curable fate, not.

    Life itself, said Buddhism as practiced in Heian, was an illness, a delirium, an illusion, as light as gossamer, as fleeting as dew. Enlightenment, the best cure of all, wakes us from the dream of life. True health is renunciation of the world. It is the quest of all major characters in “Genji,” vigorously or indolently pursued, depending on the character’s inner resources. The world is not easily renounced. Illusory it may be, but its snares are many. Beauty is one love, of course, another. Love. How healthy we would be if there were no such thing!

    There is the example of young Kashiwagi, son of Genji’s best friend, best friend of Genji’s son, a talented and engaging man. An illustrious future beckoned. Fate decreed otherwise. A chance glimpse of Genji’s youngest wife is Kashiwagi’s undoing. He is smitten. Unable to pursue the lady herself, he acquires, instead, her pet cat. “You are here to remind me of someone I long for,” he murmurs as he strokes it.

    This can’t be satisfactory for long, and isn’t. Suborning one of the lady’s attendants, he penetrates the sleeping chamber. “His passion was suddenly more than he could control.” The damage done, he dozes off, dreaming of the cat.

    The guilt is unbearable. To have cuckolded the great Genji is no small thing. He falls ill. His parents and friends watch helplessly as he declines before their eyes. An ascetic is sent for, “famous as a worker of cures, and the spells and incantations in which he immersed himself might almost have seemed overdone. The symptoms did not point to any specific illness, but Kashiwagi would sometimes weep in great, racking sobs. The soothsayers were agreed that a jealous woman had taken possession of him.”

    Kashiwagi knows better. “Listen to them. They seem to have no notion that I might be ill because I misbehaved.” Prayer, rites, spells — “they were not the medicine he needed. He went away like the foam upon the waters.” The lady gives birth to Kashiwagi’s son. Genji had married her grudgingly, to give peace to the soul of her dying father, his brother. He sought to reassure Murasaki. She had no cause for jealousy. His love was hers alone. This new lady, childish rather than childlike, so lacking in character and accomplishments, was no rival.

    And yet — how to account for these things? — Kashiwagi died of love for her. And she, for all her inadequacies, succeeded where Genji and so many others had failed. She renounced the world. As a nun, she would spend the rest of her life lost in prayer and reflection on the unreality of life and all the good and bad it brings us. She was saved — cured.

    Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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    Tale of Genji - History

    Marriage, Rank and Rape in
    The Tale of Genji

    Gender, law and power in The Tale of Genji

    Figure 2 Lady
    In short, it appears that at least in The Tale of Genji the simple existence of another wife or quasi-wife may not alarm a lady too seriously. What matters more is the other woman's intrinsic rank, which has to do first of all with who her father is and, if that rank is relatively low, with the way the lady's husband behaves towards her. A formal wife seems to have been prepared to accept the existence of other wives or quasi-wives as long as none threatened her own standing with her husband. Presumably the other women involved also managed most of the time to make some sort of peace with their situation.

    [1] I did not note it among my students, in my limited experience teaching Genji at the Australian National University.

    [2] New York Times , May 28, 1999.

    [3] Margaret H. Childs, 'The Value of Vulnerability: Sexual Coercion and the Nature of Love in Japanese Court Literature,' Journal of Asian Studies 58:4 (Nov. 1999).

    [4] Komashaku Kimi, Murasaki Shikibu no messêji , Asahi Shuppan (Asahi Sensho 422), 1991.

    [5] For complex reasons, Murasaki cannot be Genji's wife in a completely formal, uncontested sense.

    [6] Royall Tyler, tr., The Tale of Genji (2 vols.), New York: Viking, 2001. All chapter titles and official titles appear below as they do in my recently published translation of the tale. I also capitalise official titles as in the translation itself.

    [7] Kudô Shigenori, 'Ippu issai sei to shite no Heian bungaku,' Bungaku 55:10 (1987):95. On Heian marriage see also William H. McCullough, 'Japanese Marriage Institutions in the Heian Period,' Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies , 27 (1967) and Peter Nickerson, 'The Meaning of Matrilocality: Kinship, Property, and Politics in Mid-Heian,' Monumenta Nipponica 48:4 (Winter 1993).

    [8] Sonja Arntzen, tr., The Kagerô Diary: A Woman's Autobiographical Text from Tenth-Century Japan , Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.

    [9] Genji is really more interested in Akashi's child than in Akashi herself. In chapter 19 ('Wisps of Cloud') Murasaki will adopt the girl so as to permit her eventual rise to Empress.

    [10] This privilege was reserved for either a Consort (nyôgo, of whom there could be several) or an Empress (kisaki, chûgû, of whom there could be only one). A Consort was normally the daughter of a Minister (otodo, daijin).

    [11] In my usage, the daughter of an Emperor or an Emperor's son.

    [12] To confirm the marriage, the man spent three nights in a row with the woman at her house. The attendant ceremony is described in chapter 9, when Genji marries Murasaki.

    [13] For a discussion of Murasaki in the full context of her relationship with Genji, see Royall Tyler, ''I Am I': Genji and Murasaki,' Monumenta Nipponica 54:4 (Winter 1999).

    [14] Doris Bargen, A Woman's Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji , Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997, pp 199-204.

    [15] Later on, Kaoru makes love immediately, no doubt without a word or a thought about consent, to Ôigimi's unrecognised half-sister Ukifune but Ukifune is far lower in rank and, in a social sense, 'does not matter.'

    The images are from Kojitsu sôsho, a very large compendium of texts and some images on ancient usages. They are public domain.

    10. Writing Box with Warbler in Plum Tree

    Writing Box with Warbler in Plum Tree, 18th Century, The Met Museum

    One of the most famous traditional motifs of spring in Japan is the first song of the warbler. When it is heard, spring has officially begun. This motif is used in Chapter 23 of The Tale of Genji, and also captured here in captivating detail on this writing box. The lid of the box is decorated with a plum tree – flowering in the springtime – and a singing warbler in its branches. Reinforcing this is a depiction of a frog sitting amongst fallen plum blossoms – another motif of springtime. This particular writing box (suzuri-bako in Japanese) was created during the 18th century in the Edo period, but the production of lacquered writing boxes can be traced back to the 9th century. This writing box is an example of the common Edo practice of adding inlays of silver and gold to a lacquered wooden box.

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