Reality Has No More Substance Than The Lucent Dream –– Tale of Genji, Part 1

For the Literati Corner 2016, I’ve selected the mammoth Japanese classic novel, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku. I’m reading the 1976 translation by Edward G. Seidensticker; you can buy a copy here:

Of course, readers can use whatever translation they like as long as they can follow along without too much confusion. I just prefer this translator. Here is the reader’s guide again for whomever wants to read along with me, but it will also be posted on the Literati Corner Guide page:

Lady Xiansa’s Guide to the 2016 Literati Corner

This time, I’m covering chapters 1 through 9. Feel free on any of these posts to answer my study questions with your own thoughts on the novel in the comments section.

The Tale of Genji is considered the world’s first novel, and it was written in Japan by a court lady named Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century using Japanese hiragana rather than the standard Chinese kanji typically used by the scholarly men of the era. It is uncertain how many chapters are authentic, but it is considered one of the best sources for details on life in the Heian Era. The Heian Era was a golden age of Japanese history, so this makes her work really important for historians on many levels. It was the time of the reign of the Fujiwara clan, a very powerful family who had devised a way of manipulating the throne to their advantage through political marriages.

Fujiwara No Michinaga

Murasaki Shikibu was also part of the Fujiwara clan. According to Wikipedia, her real name may have been Takako Fujiwara. Born in 973 AD, she was widowed early after having a child, around 1001 AD, and served as lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi in Kyoto.

Murasaki Shikibu by Hiroshige III

She was also considered one of the 100 poets, which I covered in a series in 2013. She is portrayed in an episode in the anime “Utakoi” which shows some of the 100 poets though not The Tale of Genji.

Murasaki Shikibu on a karuta card

She is often shown in purple probably because that is what her pen name Murasaki means. She also wrote a journal called Murasaki Shikibu Diary, which deals with her years serving the empress, as well as a volume of poetry. Her death date is unknown.

Now we’ll get started looking at her masterpiece. Chapter 1, “The Paulownia Court,” begins with the birth of the title character Genji. The story starts with the introduction of the Emperor’s favorite wife who had sparked the resentment of the other women in court. The Emperor’s other women were jealous of his affection for her and resentful of her for rising above her station. Her position at court was weak due to certain circumstances, but the Emperor loved her so much that he didn’t care what the rest of the court thought. Before long, they had a child, “a beautiful son, a jewel beyond compare,” but the boy also attracted jealousy and gossip as it was clear how much the Emperor favored her and her baby. In the polygamous court of the Japanese Emperor, such inordinate affection for one woman without regard for her social status was quite scandalous. The women treated her badly, and ultimately she fell ill and died. Genji was brought to court to be near the Emperor, who loved the boy even more than the crown prince.

A face reader from Korea sees the boy and says his face shows he is meant for some high position in the country, a prediction which could cause no end of trouble. An Indian scholar also repeats the Korean’s prediction. Therefore, the Emperor reduces Genji’s status to that of commoner since he has no maternal relatives to back him and strengthen his position in court as a nobleman. He would be a threat to those in power otherwise. The Emperor didn’t want what happened to the boy’s mother to also happen to him, so he continues to encourage Genji in his studies, which Genji excels at, and sees Genji’s position as a commoner as an advantage. In the meantime, the Emperor tries to find another lady of the court who resembles his lost love. He finds one woman who resembles her, Fujitsubo, who will take on a pivotal role in the story. The Emperor encourages her to be kind to Genji since she so strongly resembles his dead mother. Genji sees her and is taken with her. But the crown prince’s mother, the cause of Genji’s mother’s downfall, is not pleased to see this turn of events:

Kokiden was not pleased. She was not on good terms with Fujitsubo, and all her old resentment at Genji came back. He was handsomer than the crown prince, her chief treasure in the world, well thought of by the whole court. People began calling Genji ‘the shining one.’ Fujitsubo, ranked beside him in the emperor’s affections, became ‘the lady of the radiant sun.’ (p. 20)

Genji goes through the standard adult initiation ceremony when he is 12, which includes a ritual cutting of his hair. The Emperor arranges to give the daughter of the Minister of the Left, who had been courted as a potential mate for the crown prince, to Genji instead, and Genji moves in with his new wife’s family. This brings Genji into a very high social status which causes some consternation among other court officials whom he outshines. But Genji, not really interested in his new bride, can’t get his stepmother Fujitsubo out of his mind, especially now that he is unable to see her so freely as an adult:

The yearning in his young heart for the other lady was agony. Now that he had come of age, he no longer had his father’s permission to go behind her curtains. On evenings when there was music, he would play the flute to her koto and so communicate something of his longing, and take some comfort from her voice, soft through the curtains. Life at court was for him much preferable to life at Sanjō. Two or three days at Sanjō would be followed by five or six days at court. For the minister, youth seemed sufficient excuse for this neglect. (pp. 22-23)

Chapter 2, “The Broom Tree, “ is kind of shocking because it shows Genji sitting around with some of the other courtiers talking about women and why they consider these women flawed. I have to wonder what Murasaki Shikibu was up to with this part. Was it a sly critique of the women of the court? Or was she lampooning the men’s attitude toward women? I think it would be less of a question if the novel were written by a man, but female authorship makes this chapter a bit more curious. If we were listening to a male character of low rank, the story would go very differently.  We see very few characters of low rank in this story, which is important to remember.  So we eavesdrop on this bored, shallow talk of the upper class with a lot of leisure time. Traditional Japan was certainly not a place where women were hugely powerful, especially without male relatives of rank, and men were subjected to arranged marriages with political ramifications. So romance meant something different under such a system.

Late in chapter 2, we see a pattern of seducing women begin with Genji. He is intrigued by his host’s wife (called Locust Shell after this) at a house where he has been invited to spend the night. After everyone goes to bed, he wanders into her room since the door is unlocked, and he lays down in bed beside her, hoping to seduce her! The woman wiggles out of this uncomfortable situation without giving in, which doesn’t make Genji too happy. But even in traditional Western societies, cuckoldry was considered quite a humiliation for a man, and a wife who was found to have given in to adultery was usually punished excessively even if the man she did it with was let off the hook. I’m not sure what the standard response would be in Japan, though indications it also would be severely punished.  However in the course of the novel, the men who discover it just ignore it. Certainly in the modern world Genji’s behavior would be questionable. Having some dude you never met just walk in your bedroom, declare his undying love for you and try to have sex with you, that would never be acceptable. Most of them would end up getting shot or thrown in jail as a serial rapist. Even back in that day, his seductions could be considered coercive since women really didn’t have much power against someone of his rank.

Certainly in this chapter, we see glimpses that there is some impropriety:

‘You are perfectly correct if you think me unable to control myself. But I wish you to know that I have been thinking of you for a very long time. And the fact that I have finally found my opportunity and am taking advantage of it should show that my feelings are by no means shallow.’

His manner was so gently persuasive that devils and demons could not have gainsaid him. The lady would have liked to announce to the world that a strange man had invaded her boudoir.

‘I think you have mistaken me for someone else,’ she said, outraged, though the remark was under her breath.

The little figure, pathetically fragile and as if on the point of expiring from the shock, seemed to him very beautiful….

She was so small that he lifted her easily. As he passed through the doors to his own room, he came upon the Chūjō who had been summoned earlier. He called out in surprise. Surprised in turn, Chūjō peered into the darkness. The perfume that came from his robes like a cloud of smoke told her who he was. She stood in confusion, unable to speak. Had he been a more ordinary intruder she might have ripped her mistress away by main force. But she would not have wished to raise an alarm all through the house. (p.47)

Chapter 3, “The Shell of the Locust,” is very short and finishes wrapping up his failed affair with the the Locust Shell lady. In contrast, chapter 4, “Evening Faces,” has a lot of really nice descriptions and poems that make it worth reading with some attention, but it continues to describe Genji’s amorous adventures. However, this time his evening seduction ends with a death and a funeral. So far, he’s not too successful as a ladies’ man.

In chapter 5, “Lavender,” Genji goes to visit a nun after a prolonged illness and meets a child of about ten who strongly resembles his beloved Fujitsubo who turns out to be Fujitsubo’s niece. Genji asks if he may take the child in, but the girl’s startled relatives put him off and suggest they see where things stand in five years or so. Genji won’t give up on her and continues to make suggestions to her guardians. His familiarity when he visits the little girl after her grandmother dies suddenly shocks her caregivers. It takes more persuading but he does manage to get what he wants. Genji takes the girl, practically by force, names her Murasaki and gives her rooms at his house in Nijō. Her grandmother’s household is forced to keep her whereabouts secret, and her father Prince Hyōbu is aghast to hear of her disappearance. Meanwhile, Fujitsubo is going through trials of her own and stays away from both the court and the Emperor for awhile, and Genji’s formal wife continues to greet him coldly at her family house in Sanjō. This is another pivotal chapter in the story.

Chapter 6, “The Safflower,” begins to show more of the cultured side of aristocratic life that takes on more and more prominence in the succeeding chapters. Here, Genji meets with a woman in the evening to hear her play the koto, while later he plays a flute duet with his close friend. He tries to seduce a princess who seems really unresponsive to his advances, and he is annoyed enough to cruelly make fun of her appearance.

In chapter 7, “An Autumn Excursion,” we are treated to more court festivities with Genji at center stage dancing and singing along with his friend. This chapter is significant, and there are some great passages here: “’Through the waving, dancing sleeves could you see a heart so stormy that it wished but to be still?’ or “He kept the letter spread before him as if it were a favorite sutra.” (p.141) But this passage is quite remarkable:

On the day of the excursion the emperor was attended by his whole court, the princes and the rest. The crown prince too was present. Music came from boats rowed out over the lake, and there was an infinite variety of Chinese and Korean dancing. Reed and string and drum echoed through the grounds. Because Genji’s good looks had on the evening of the rehearsal filled him with foreboding, the emperor ordered sutras read in several temples. Most of the court understood and sympathized, but Kokiden [mother of the crown prince] thought it all rather ridiculous. The most renowned virtuosos from the high and middle court ranks were chosen for the flutists’ circle. The director of the Chinese dances and the director of the Korean dances were both guards officers who held seats on the council of state. The dancers had for weeks been in monastic seclusion studying each motion under the direction of the most revered masters of the art.

The forty men in the flutists’ circle played most marvelously. The sound of their flutes, mingled with the sighing of the pines, was like a wind coming down from deep mountains. ‘Waves of the Blue Ocean [Genji’s dance piece],’ among falling leaves of countless hues, had about it an almost frightening beauty. The maple branch in Genji’s cap was somewhat bare and forlorn, most of the leaves having fallen, and seemed at odds with his handsome face. The General of the Left replaced it with several chrysanthemums which he brought from below the royal seat. The sun was about to set and a suspicion of an autumn shower rustled past as if the skies too were moved to tears. The chrysanthemums in Genji’s cap, delicately touched by the frosts, gave new beauty to his form and his motions, no less remarkable today than on the day of the rehearsal. Then his dance was over, and a chill as if from another world passed over the assembly. (p.141-142)

The Emperor’s wife, Fujitsubo, is about to give birth to a child, but as the months go by before she goes into labor, Genji starts to suspect that the child is his. Indeed, when he is born, he looks just like Genji, and both Genji and Fujitsubo are terrified their secret will be obvious when people look at the child. It is clear to the reader, too, that Genji’s behavior is not usual or permissible in spite of the casual way he conducts himself and the story is told from his perspective.

The festivities and poetry continue at court in chapter 8, but it’s chapter 9, “Heartvine,” where things really reach a head. Only two affairs besides Genji’s adoption of the child Murasaki are remotely successful at this point, and both of them are with older women. The main one to be widely discovered is his affair with the former crown prince’s wife, Rokujō, and even his father the Emperor chides him on his treatment of her. But a series of slights angers Rokujō, causing a strange spiritual influence on Genji’s wife Lady Aoi as she is about to give birth to their son. This segment was also immortalized in a Noh drama called “Lady Aoi” which can be read in both English and Japanese here:

Genji is devastated at his wife’s death, and he turns to Murasaki for comfort, but his amorous overtures end in disaster. Note here that if Murasaki seems a bit young for Genji to take as a wife, he was considered an adult at age 12, and apparently it was customary for girls to be married off at puberty. She is considered an adult by Heian Era standards. But even so, Genji goes from playing dolls with her to a sexual relationship, which disgusts and angers her. She hadn’t expected that to happen, and he even suggests to her that he’s a “child thief” (p. 192).

I will conclude this post by answering one of my own study questions. Is it strange Murasaki Shikibu chose a man to be her main character? Perhaps not. For a lady of her time, a man may have had more freedom than most women would ever dream of, and that gave her the possibility of indulging in her imagination in a world where she was unfettered socially. She also apparently suggested in some of her writings that her father had wished she had been a boy, and she was raised in her father’s household instead of her mother’s as was customary. Perhaps she was intrigued by male society, and the other ladies-in-waiting she was writing to entertain may have been bored by anything reflecting their own familiar sphere of life.

One question I have that I can’t wrap my head around though is why the author used her own pen name for Genji’s child bride. Was that character somehow a stand-in for herself? Frequently when writers name a character after themselves, it is a stand-in for them. But Murasaki Shikibu was one of the rare women of her era who married much later than normal, not at puberty but in her twenties, so was she reimagining her life following that normal fashion? Was Genji some kind of personal fantasy fulfillment for her? The husband she wished to have?

It’s notable, too, that Murasaki Shikibu highlights the affairs of “older women” like 30-year-old Rokujō and the 60-year-old Naishi with these young guys, something I can’t imagine a male writer doing, even in modern times. Of course, these women are portrayed very sympathetically. Fascinating stuff.

Part one of six parts



About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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