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World-Changing Women: Murasaki Shikibu

Updated Friday, 23 October 2020
Murasaki Shikibu worte the world's first novel, twice as long as War and Peace. Discover what is known about her life in this article...
Murasaki Shikibu c.978 - c.1013? Japan Literature

Murasaki Shikibu image Potrait of Murasaki Shikibu by Kano Takanobu According to the rules of Japanese court manners one thousand years ago, it was not considered polite to address people by their personal names.  Thus, the real name of the woman who wrote what is judged to be the very first novel was not recorded, (as was common for a daughter) and is unknown.

The writer who has come to be known as Murasaki Shikibu was born into an influential and cultured family, her father was a provincial governor and her male relatives held positions in the imperial government.  Murasaki was educated at home and reputedly learned Chinese by listening outside the door while her father taught her brother. She married at about the age of twenty but her husband died soon after, leaving her with a daughter. She then lived quietly for some years.

In 1004 Murasaki entered the service of the Empress Akiko, possibly due to her talent for story-writing. No one knows precisely when she began her famous story, The Tale of Genji  but, divided into fifty-four books or episodes, the novel is twice as long as War and Peace. The plots spans almost a hundred years and involves over four hundred characters.  The hero, Hikaru Genji, seeks love and happiness, enjoys popularity at court and a series of amorous encounters.  The tale, according to its English translator, contains some remarkable writing. It is considered to be the world's first psychological novel and one of the most distinguished masterpieces of Japanese literature.

Aside from the novel, Murasaki Shikibu left a collection of her poetry and a fragmentary diary. She last appears in a record dating from 1013, and her date of death is unknown.


This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.


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