First Hardcopied Book: The Diary of Lady Murasaki

MurasakiI have already finished my first book for the Hardcopied July print reading challenge: The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Yay! Now, granted, it’s quite short, but it still counts.

You have to be in the right mood for this sort of book. This is not fiction, but a document written by a historical figure in Japan during the Heian period (late tenth/early eleventh centuries). It’s a translation (by Richard Bowring) of a document written by a lady-in-waiting of the Japanese empress, Shoshi, around the years 1008 to 1010 or so. (For context? Around fifty years before the Norman Conquest.) It provides a lot of insight into how court events were planned after the birth of the youngish Emperor Ichijo’s first son. We get to see how the ladies who surrounded the empress behaved and comported themselves, we read detailed descriptions of how they dressed, and we get a senior lady’s opinion of the goings on. We also see  just a bit of the machinations that the men are involved in.

This is apparently one of the earliest insights into how Japanese court etiquette operated, especially since this was in a time period when people’s court roles were not quite as rigid as they later became. Historians find this period really interesting because it was right when Japan was pulling away from Chinese influence and was developing its own distinctly Japanese culture–especially a written culture. It was the Japanese women in particular (who were shut out of the official and governmental writings, still heavily influenced by Chinese) who did the most to codify and spread the newer Japanese writing. So this account (along with two other women’s accounts from the same general period–The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and Izumi Shikibu’s diary–is very important in showing that new cultural development. One of the most important elements in this culture and in the court was the ability to create simultaneous lines of poetry, responding to moments as they happened and particularly responding to another person’s initiating of their own poetic lines.

What’s also interesting is how little actual power the emperor had and how much power the strongest families surrounding the court had instead. Yet the only way they could really get this power was to get as many family members as possible either married into the royal family or married into other powerful positions that surrounded the court. So the current (at that time) patriarch of the Fujiwara clan, Michinaga, was the one who got his daughter married to the emperor, and he is in control of a lot of the rituals that follow the birth of the baby prince. And it’s kind of amusing how, whenever the attending officials are named, you might get seventeen of them with the name “Fijiwara” and perhaps four of them with other names. Murasaki herself was from another less influential branch of the Fujiwaras.

The translator, Richard Bowring, wrote an excellent introduction explaining the historical and cultural context, and he also added Appendices that showed detailed floor plans of the rooms, apartments, and garden areas of the buildings in which the events took place. This added a lot of rich context.

So! Short but sweet. But as I say, you do need to be in the mood to delve into history in some detail. (And also, thanks to my friend, Tim, who originally sent me this book. 🙂 )

    2 comments

    1. Tim Lukeman says:

      A wonderful choice — and if you haven’t read the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon yet, I enthusiastically recommend it. She’s intelligent, infuriating, snobbish to a fault, and endlessly fascinating — a distinct personality & clearly a force to be reckoned with.( I’ve often thought The Pillow Book would provide an excellent model & format for a very different kind of fantasy novel, by the way.)

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