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Genji Monogatari & Makura Zoshi

A lesson on Japanese literature would be incomplete indeed if these great works were not mentioned! Genji Monogatari and Makura Zoshi by contemporary female authors mark the highest point attained by Japanese classical literature.

Genji Monogatari :-- Although the real name of the author of the Genji Monogatari has not been revealed, she is known historically as Murasaki no Shikibu. Murasaki means "purple".

Likely her father held office in the Court Department called the Board of Rites.

Murasaki displayed a love of learning as a young girl and became well-versed in both Japanese and Chinese literature. She was married for a short time to a Fujiwara, but lost him too soon. After this she attached herself to the Empress Akiko who was very fond of pursuing learning. Through this relationship she became familiar with the court life of Kyoto. Her writings reflect her relationships as some of the finest in the country.

Genji Monogatari was the first great novel of Japan. The story is about the son of a court concubine. It follows his life until he reaches the age of 55 years. The style of writing is ornate and reflects Japanese court life of the time. The Genji was finished around the year 1004 A.D.

Murasaki Shikibu, illustration by Tosa Mitsuoki who did a series on The Tale of Genji (17th century)

Makura Zoshi:-- also known as "Pillow Sketches is attributed to Sei Shonagon, another lady of high rank. Her father, a poet, was descended from the Prince who compiled the Nihongi.

The Makura Zoshi is the first example of a type of writing produced as a free flow of thought called Zuihitsu or "following the pen". Whatever came to mind was written down. More than the author of the Genji, Shonagon's personality was displayed beautifully in everything she wrote. The opening chapter is filled with the four seasons. Following are some of these offerings:  

"In spring I love to watch the dawn

grow gradually whiter and whiter,

till a faint rosy tinge crowns the mountain's crest,

while slender streaks of purple cloud extend themselves above."

"In summer,

I love the night,

not only when the moon is shining,

but the dark too,

when the fireflies cross each other's paths in their flight,

or when the rain is falling."

"In autumn,

it is the beauty of the evening which most deeply moves me,

as I watch the crows seeking their roosting-place

in twos and threes and fours,

while the setting sun sends forth his beams gorgeously

as he draws near the mountain's rim."

"In winter,

how unspeakably beautiful is the snow!

But I also love the dazzling whiteness of the hoar-frost,

and the intense cold even at other times.

Then it is meet quickly to fetch charcoal and kindle fires.

And let not the gentle warmth of noon

persuade us to allow the embers of the hearth

or of the brazier to become a white heap of ashes!"  

The Genji Monogatari and the Makura Zoshi are not frequently read in this present day, but even modern writers could learn from the style of these dear old masterpieces.

Sei Shônagon in a later 17th century drawing

More on The Tale of Genji

The ebook: The Tale of Gengi


More on Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book)

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