Courtly Life and Princes – The Tale of Genji

Recently watched a documentary on Netflix called The Ascent of Woman – what a gem! It’s a documentary describing the lost women of the world throughout the ages in four episodes:

  1. Civilization: answers the question of how women were perceived in the dawn of civilization and why did women decline as civilizations expanded and became richer.
  2. Separation: explores how women accepted or rejected the “lower” status they were given in Confucian society of the east. Some women rejected it such as Lady Murasaki (remember her name ;))
  3. Power: during the middle ages, women were always excluded to texts and tasks, why and how?
  4. Revolution: in the 20th century, many people claimed to be part of women’s revolution such as the Bolsheviks but eventually those promises came to nothing. In the present day, women continue to expand their visibility and influence in the public sphere.

I decided to explore this path of women through a literary perspective. Who where the first female writers and what were their driving forces for writing, publishing and being known for their work?

The Tale of Genji

The story begins with The Tale of Genji written by the Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the 1000’s in Japan. Murasaki is not her real name, since no one knows her real name. In the Heian period of Japan, it was no acceptable to know noble’s real names or talk about them using their real names as it was considered impolite.

Murasaki wrote the book in her early 20’s and it is thought to have continued writing throughout her time as a lady-in-waiting during her time at court. It is a rather difficult work to read and I prefer the abridged version I found that has explanations on poetry and such other aspects of Japanese life that one wouldn’t know unless they have studied Japanese culture and/or literature.

Genji is an exceptionally beautiful court prince, his father is the Emperor of Japan. Everyone loves Genji for his almost unearthly beauty in everything he does. But Genji is a bit of a ladies man…. How surprising? He loves one girl, who he abducts from her home and takes to a cottage. She is very shy, small and helpless but he loves her that way. In a tragic moment, she does from fright due to spirits in the air or something of the sort she imagines. Genji is sad and becomes ill. He recuperates by going to temple where an extremely old monk lives. While out on his adventure – a prince shouldn’t be going around in the woods – he spies some beautiful ladies. He falls in love with one who is only 10…

The story continues in this strange manner where Genji spends his life idly “falling in love” with one lady or the other.

What it Tells Women

This theme portrays women as very unimportant, uninteresting and generally as things to be used and abused while beautiful beaus walk around and amuse themselves. Clearly, women of early Japan were not particularly powerful in the view of Murasaki herself. Why is the main character a man and not a woman? Perhaps no one would have even been interested in a book about a female character, since her days would be spent at home learning who to play a musical instrument until her husband arrives from business.

Overall, The Tale of Genji is a beautiful book with lots of poetry and perhaps would be even more beautiful if one could read Japanese. However, it is not particularly inspiring but rather mundane in the routine and boredom that court life must have created for itself.

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