Lady Murasaki, whose name we don’t know

Murasaki Shikibu writing at Ishiyama-dera. Suzuki Harunobu, 1767. Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Murasaki Shikibu writing at Ishiyama-dera.
Suzuki Harunobu, 1767
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Lady Murasaki, or Murasaki Shikibu, is one of the great writers of the world. Her Tale of Genji, written more than a thousand years ago, jumpstarted Japanese literature. (It also contains a Garlic Princess.) At the time, most writers in Japan were men or else court women. The men received elaborate training in classical Chinese and then wrote Japanese with Chinese characters. Japanese grammar is more different from Chinese than English grammar is, so this was neither easy nor conducive to graceful writing. The women, though, weren’t educated much and had to scribble their Japanese using the syllabary. The freedom this created led to Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon‘s Pillow Book, among others. Apparently the two women, who were ladies-in-waiting at the royal court at the same time, disliked each other. Murasaki writes, “Sei Shonagon… was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.”

Lady Murasaki looking at the moon at Ishiyama-dera. By Yoshitoshi (1889)

Lady Murasaki looking at the moon at Ishiyama-dera. By Yoshitoshi (1889)

But Murasaki goes on, “Thus do I criticize others from various angles–but here is one who has survived this far without having achieved anything of note….Whenever my loneliness threatens to overwhelm me, I take out one or two of them [her Chinese books] to look at; but my women gather together behind my back….What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?’ they whisper….So I hesitate to do even those things I should be able to do quite freely, only too aware of my own servants’ prying eyes. How much more so at court….So all they see of me is a façade.”

But even though we know a lot about Lady Murasaki’s inner feelings from her diary and Genji, we don’t know her name! Her family name was Fujiwara but herimg-131 real name was not recorded. Sei Shonagon is also just a court name. A woman of an earlier generation who also left a diary is known only as Michitsuna’s mother.

The Japanese were not the only people to suppress the names of women.In ancient Rome, women were often known only by the name of their family and then their order in the family. In China, many famous women in history are known only as Mencius’ mother, Consort Ban [her surname], or the Zhangsun Empress [a posthumous title]. Even today, girls’ names are not entered into the family books kept by Chinese families for generations. And even today in the Arab world, women are commonly called only “Umm Ali” or “Umm Salim”– mother of Ali or Salim, the name of their oldest son. Even if he’s the youngest of six children.

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