4/20/2008

Woman of the week - Murasaki Shikibu

Later portrait of Murasaki
Name: "Murasaki Shikibu" 
Born: Kyoto, Japan, around 973
Dead: Kyoto, Japan, probably around 1014 or 1025
Married: Yes
Children: a daughter, Daini no Sanmi
Occupation: Courtier and writer

Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部) was not the real name of this woman, born as a member of the important Fujiwara family. Murasaki (meaning purple wisteria blossom) was a nickname given to her at court and came from her most famous literal work. Shikibu refers to the title her father had, being a Shikibu-shō. We do not know for certain what she was called, her surname was Fujiwara and some scholars has postulated her first name to be Takako.

Murasaki's life was different from that lived by most Japanese women at the time. Her mother passed away when she was quite young so she was raised by her father who must have seen a gifted child in his daughter since he gave her an education far beyond what was common at the time. Instead of just learning the fine arts she was for example taught Chinese - which was not considered proper for a woman to learn. Her father lamented that his bright child was born a woman.

In her early twenties she was married to a distant relative and they had a daughter. But the husband, name unknown, passed away in 1001 and Murasaki was summoned to court for she was well known for her intellect and they thought she would make a good maid of honour. She spent more than a decade at the royal court in Kyoto - though she did not approve of the lewd life many acted out there.

This was also the place where she finished the work that make her name in the history, The Tale of Genji - considered to be one of the first modern 'novels' - which about the son of an emperor and his career, much centered around his good looks. But it is a intricate story that has about 400 different characters. The story ends in the middle of a sentence and it has been debated if this was intentional or not. The truth is that we do not know.

Murasaki also wrote a diary (known, not surprisingly as Murasaki Shikibu's diary) about life at court and she also left 128 poems she had written. All of this was published posthumously.

We do not know much about Murasaki's later life. It has been suggested that she either died in 1014 or 1025.

There are many later portraits of Murasaki, like the one by Harunobu Suzuki shown here, it was painted aroun 1767. She is also shown on the 2000 Yen note.

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