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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Tale of Genji: the World’s First Full-length Novel

The Tale of Genji: the World’s First Full-length Novel.
源氏物語

The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) is considered to be the world's first full-length novel.

It was written in the early 11th century by a female imperial court servant called Murasaki Shikibu. This is over a thousand years ago and long before narrative works by European writers such as Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) and Daniel Defoe (1659–1731).

The Tale of Genji consists of 54 chapters and covers a period of 70 years during which four different emperors reigned. In all, the work has about 400 characters, including 50 main characters. The length of the work is equivalent to over 2,500 pages (with 400 Japanese letters per page; i.e. about 1 million letters).

The story is divided into three parts. The first part spans Chapter 1 (Kiritsubo) to Chapter 33 (Fuji no Uraba). This part mainly describes the lavish early life of Hikaru Genji, the hero of the story.

The second part covers eight chapters: Chapter 34 (Wakanajo) to Chapter 41 (Maboroshi). This part focuses on the lonesome feelings and solitary later life of Hikaru Genji.

The third part covers the last 13 chapters: Chapter 35 (Niou no Miya) to Chapter 54 (Yume no Ukihashi). These chapters tell the part of the story after Hikaru Genji death. The last ten chapters are known as Uji Jujo as they are set in the town of Uji, located a little southeast of Kyoto.

Murasaki Shikibu statue in Uji.
Murasaki Shikibu statue in Uji
Who was Murasaki Shikibu?

Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部) was the daughter of the middle class court noble, Tametoki Fujiwara. The exact year of her birth is unknown but it is assumed to be some time between 970 and 973. Her mother died when she was a child.

Murasaki Shikibu married Nobutaka Fujiwara in 999, when she was about 27 years old. They had a daughter, Takako, in the following year. However, only three years after their marriage, in 1001, her husband passed away. It is believed that the first chapters of the Tale of Genji were completed around this time.

In 1005, Murasaki Shikibu started to serve the Empress Shoshi who was a daughter of Michinaga Fujiwara, the most powerful court officer of that time. Though the year of her death is not known, historical records indicate that she lived until around 1019.

Murasaki Shikibu was the first Japanese person to be selected by UNESCO as one of the world's great cultural individuals. In addition, Murasaki Shikibu's writing of the Tale of Genji was ranked as 83rd of the "100 Events that Changed the World in Last 1,000 Years", featured in a special October issue of Time magazine in 1997.

The Tale of Genji has been translated into many other languages, including: English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Czech, Croatian, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi among others.

In addition to the countless people who have read the book, there are many researchers all over the world who have and continue to pursue research related to the book.

In the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki (Murasaki Shikibu's Diary), Murasaki Shikibu wrote on November 1st, 1008, that she was praised for the excellence of her writing by Kinto Fujiwara, one of the leading literary connoisseurs of that era.

This entry proves that the Wakamurasaki (early Murasaki) chapters had been completed at this time (November 1st, 1008) and that many people were reading them even then.

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