Lesson 19




1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote








       Genji and the survival of China  






Read from the Longman Anthology of World Literature, Bo Juyi's "The Song of Everlasting Sorrow" (Damrosch B 161-164), background to Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji: "The Heian Period" (Damrosch B193-194), "Murasaki Shikibu" (Damrosch B222-224), and three episodes from the tale: young Genji (Damrosch B224-247), the defense of fiction (Damrosch B266-268), and old Genji (Damrosch B268-297).
Then skim the page below and journal for an hour.

Finally, if you are enrolled in the course, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G

The Tale of Genji


Few records in Japan predate the dark ages. The Kojiki or "record of ancient matters" dates back only to about 712 CE. Then came the Heian period (794-1185 CE), foundational in Japan, as the time when Japanese culture distinguished itself from Chinese.

The relationship between Chinese and Japanese languages in medieval Japan seems comparable to that in the medieval west between Latin and the emerging romance languages. By the time of The Tale of Genji (cir. 1010 CE), Chinese remained the language of diplomacy, international business and scholarship, but Japanese was an appropriate language for courtly literature. Murasaki Shikibu's father was learned in classical Chinese poetry, and her hero Genji shines in his boyhood recitals Chinese classics, but Chinese is not spoken or written in Shikibu's women's worlds which Genji finds so irresistible. The women here are attracted by artistic men gifted with poetic expression in Japanese: the man's letters and his words and music penetrate through the curtain.

Letter writing and poetry in the Japanese language form the basis for courtship, which in turn stands at the center of individual life and local politics. To reveal their beauty and elegance, and so participate in the ongoing cycles of nature, the young must be able to compose spontaneously Tanka verses of thirty-one syllables in five lines (5-7-5-7-7), and linked verse of seventeen syllables (5-7-5) answered by fourteen syllables (7-7). Almost 800 examples appear in The Tale of Genji, so many that the tale eventually became a fountainhead of Japanese poetry, studied by aspiring authors. That is to say, Genji in time promoted a different form of culture from those studied previously in this course. It was not a general political or religious culture but an aesthetic subculture, a culture of poets.  And its author was not male.

Emergence of women's literature

From the tenth century through the medieval period in Japan, the prestige literary forms were Buddhist scriptures and Confucian texts (such as the Book of Songs), followed by Chinese history (such as Records of the Historian). Below these Chinese cultural forms were waka ( Japanese poetry) and monogatari (Japanese narratives) and other writing in the native script. The Chinese kanji (Chinese script) were known as “man’s hand” (otoko-de), and the Japanese kana (vernacular script) were known as “woman’s hand” (onna-de). Man's hand typically dealt with public matters and generally was written on large sheets of paper. Women's hand tended to deal with private and impermanent issues, and it was often written on small colored, scented stationary. Works in kanji usually were signed, but those in kana usually were unsigned--one's calligraphy being distinctive enough to serve as identification, as in Kashiwagi's misplaced letter to the Third Princess (Damrosch B211). Among his other talents, Genji is a kana master, able to express his desires indirectly in "laconic and evasive" style (B212). 

Tanka verses composed in kana were widely practiced by both men and women. Monogatari, though considered as pastimes written for women and children, were also composed by men as well as women. Although the Japanese genres and the Japanese script were associated with women, all writing remained largely under the control of male writers, whether scholars, priests, or government officials. Murasaki Shikibu's accomplishment is the more remarkable for having been produced amid such male and foreign dominance.


Romance is defended in the “Fireflies” chapter of The Tale of Genji (chapter 25, Damrosch B190-192) where Genji first takes the standard male position toward the monogatari, commenting on its frivolous nature, on how full of fabrication it is and how it leads to deception, particularly for naive women readers. To seduce the woman to whom he is talking, however, Genji leaves off teasing her about romances--to which she is addicted--and he adopts a positive view that these stories can not only express experiences of deep feeling but also convey higher truths, much as Buddhist parables do. The Tale of Genji seems to do both. 

Medieval Japanese romances tend to follow either of two conventional patterns, female or male. The female pattern, found in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, is the courtship, in which men compete to win the hand of a daughter. In the male story line an amorous male hero has a series of relationships with women, one after another. This male narrative paradigm is found in the Heian classic The Tales of Ise, as well as the first part of Genji. Shikibu's variation is to use the male form of romance to express the sorrows of the serial women and to point the Buddhist moral about the painfulness of desire. Genji "the shining one" is almost desire itself; as the most beautiful individual at court, he brings out envy in competitors and destructive jealousy among the rival women who fall for him. He is not only unhappy in himself but the cause of unhappiness in many others.

Disillusionment with love and marriage, especially polygamous marriage, is anticipated prior to Genji in The Kagero Nikki, by Michitsuna’s mother. This work explores the tribulations of polygamous marriage, separation, old age, and death. It search for meaning, more than men fulfill. This same process occurs in the course of Genji. which moves from sexual concerns to spiritual issues. In this we have a view of the whole of life, youth and age, not unlike that presented in Sakuntala and other romances of the classical period. The engagement of the young is balanced by the disengagement of the second half of life.

young Genji

What should a Buddhist romance look like? It should illustrate the Buddha's noble truths that there is suffering and that the cause of suffering is desire. This is the central focus in Shikibu's narrative. Genji “attains an awareness of death, mutability, and the illusory nature nature of the world through repeated suffering” (Damrosch B:148), but the cause of the his problem is aishû, the Japanese term for attachments to things in the transitory world. Attachments are obstacles both to enlightenment and to freedom of the soul.

The Tale of Genji captures much the same emotion as Virgil's "tears of things" in the Aeneas-Dido story, the Japanese term for such romantic pathos being known as "mono no aware." Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), a famous scholar of Japanese historical culture, argued that mono no aware is at the heart of the Genji monogatari.

The pattern or precedent for Genji's life is established by Bo Juyi's "A Song of Unending Sorrow" (in Damrosh B98-B100), the Chinese model for Genji's father's unreasonable and continuing dotage on Genji's mother after her death. Both Genji and his emperor father seek to revive the dead lady in her look-alike, Fujitsubo. This compulsion leads to the birth of the future emperor, which Genji to his horror realizes is not his brother but his son. Genji takes on a lifelong load of sin and regret (B161) as he wonders whether his father realizes the truth. Fujitsubo's remorse is so great that she pines away and dies. Geiji also becomes ill, but he recovers with the discovery of another look-alike, the child Murasaki, which leads him to further complications of desire and suffering.

old Genji

Sukuse, the Japanese term for Karma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. It refers to causes and effects through transmigrations of the soul: actions in one incarnation have effects or consequences in subsequent incarnations. In Genji  sukuse is also presented as actions and consequences within the time of a single incarnation, adding an element of personal responsibility.

The pattern is notable in Genji's life. In Shikibu's romance, young Genji's indiscretion with Fujitsubo is balanced by Kashiwagi's indiscretion with the Third Princess, the wife of Genji's old age. The birth of a Kaoru to the Third Princess puts Genji in the position that his father formerly occupied, as incorrectly supposed father, and it reawakens Genji's guilt over his affair with Fujitsubo (B212). All of the central characters pine away from guilt or retreat into Buddhist vows; others burn in anger or jealousy.

In classical Japanese poetry, love “is never about happiness or the blissful union of souls. Instead it dwells on unfulfilled hopes, regretful partings, fears of abandonment, and lingering resentment” (Damrosch B:147). Shikibu puts all of the emotions in context.

Buddhist spirituality

The Lotus Sutra was perhaps the most important Mahayana Buddhist sutra in Heian Japan. It describes the sermon given by the Buddha at Vulture Peak Mountain before a large assembly of various sentient beings. In it the Buddha shows that there are many means or expedients through which a person can achieve enlightenment, which have only temporary validity and in their nature are all one. The Lotus sutra was especially significant for women in that it suggested, through a story about the Dragon King’s daughter, that women could achieve enlightenment without lengthy incarnation into male bodies. Heian nobles like Genji commissioned recitations of the Lotus Sutra in the belief that it would have a beneficial effect on their own sukuse or that of a loved one.

Pure Land: while many Pure Lands or Buddha-realms, exist (just as there are many Buddhas), Pure Land usually refers to the Western Paradise ruled by Buddha Amitabha, or Amida in Japanese. Some Japanese Buddhists believed that faith in salvation by Amida Buddha would allow them to be reborn into the Western Paradise in the next life.

onyrô "angry ghosts": sprits that linger in the world after death due to the extraordinary circumstances under which they die. According to popular belief deriving from Buddhism, aishû, or lingering attachments to the world (e.g. love, hate, or other intense emotions), and especially the emotion urami, resentment against a perceived wrong, can prevent the spirit from transmigrating after death. This inability to pass happens with the jealous spirit of the Rokujo Lady that possesses and almost kills Murasaki (chapter 35, B207).

mono no ke: a spirit belonging to a living person, that acts independently of that person’s conscious will, and rises out of the body to do harm to others. In Genji, men and women pine away when they are detested by rivals or even by themselves. The Japanese explain this phenomenon in terms of spirits where we would explain it in term of stress.

Lesson Summary: Women's literature emerges full blown in Heian Japan in The Tale of Genji and other works remarkable for psychological sophistication, depth of feeling, and Buddhist moralization. Genji has had cultural effect for almost 1000 years as a fountainhead of Japanese poetry.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. Buddhist and religious elements: What religious elements seem to be present in The Tale of Genji.  Is Confucianism present? What about Daoism?

2. Heian period women http://gallery.sjsu.edu/heian/index.html

3. UNESCO text.



Sacred Texts translation


4. What is Genji’s attitude toward romances? Chapter 25 "Fireflies" is one of the famous episodes in Genji, due to its discussion of women's fantasy literature, or "romance" as it is translated in our text. What does this episode tell us about literature?

5. Women's literature: why do you suppose that female authorship is so unusual in the surviving texts of the ancient world?


6. Narrative artistry: Consider the narrative art of Genji. There are few extensive descriptions of people or scenes, and yet the characters and settings seem to come alive. How does Murasaki Shikibu achieve these effects?

7.  Genji: What is the attitude of Murasaki Shikibu toward Genji and his affairs? How can you tell?  How does Genji differ from the heroes of epic literature--for example, Odysseus or Aeneas or Gilgamesh?  How do the Shikibu's women differ from the women of epic literature?

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2009