What Were They Thinking!? - Tale of Genji
In this series, we examine works of art and concepts that might puzzle or confuse at first sight. You know the ones we're talking about. The work you look at and say to yourself, "what were they thinking!?"
If you were in an Intro to World Art class during undergrad you probably saw portions of The Tale of Genji. The 54 chapter scroll chronicles the life and loves of the deposed Prince Genji. The text is not only a treasure trove for historians who study the time period but also a significant literature that is required reading in Japanese schools today.
Written by a Woman
The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu around the 10th-11th centuries Heian era. Even for her time, Lady Murasaki was considered a rebellious noblewoman. She did not marry until her mid-twenties and chose not to remarry after becoming a widow in her early thirties. She began writing The Tale of Genji after her husband's death. Her reputation as a writer quickly spread and she was invited to be a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Imperial Heian Court; she was a tutor and a companion to the teenage empress.
Debated to be the first novel ever written, the 54-chapter text (over 1000 pages in the English translation) gives a detailed look into court life. Lady Murasaki's access to court drama and etiquette is the reason scholars refer back to the text when studying nobility of the era. The story centers around the life, and loves, of Prince Genji. Instead of being strictly a historical text, Murasaki Shikibu created a fictional romance-driven story. After being stripped of his title by the new emperor, Prince Genji adopts a common surname and sets out to become an imperial officer at court. Constantly searching for love, we see the Prince in multiple suspect relationships - including one with his stepmother and another with a fourteen-year-old girl.
At the time, men wrote in the stiff scholarly style of Chinese calligraphy. However, women were banned from learning Chinese calligraphy and as a result refined Japanese script - kana. The Tale of Genji has been translated into several languages and is still being published today. It has six modern English translations and 88 print runs.
The story follows the life and generation after Prince Hikaru Genji. Many have speculated that Murasaki Shikibu based the characters on people in her life (though none are given explicit names). With over 400 characters to keep track of, the continuity and attention to detail are impressive. The story focuses on love and emotional relationships just as much as the politics and power of court. The Japanese have a term for this—mono no aware, a pathos for the fleeting moments of beauty, joy, even heartbreak that are part of being human. These emotions and actions are portrayed using subtle means in the pictures. By reading the text alongside the image you are able to pick up the small details of lovers heads leaning toward each other or a court lady trying to reject her suitor's advances. While the text immortalizes the glamorous details and procedures of court it does not shy away from darker matters of rape, incest, and pedophilia.
A popular set of illustrations were done by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691). He based his illustrations on Heian style from the existing scrolls from the 12th century. For each chapter, the tone is set by the composition. The more dramatic or intense the mood the sharper the diagonals and the more cramped into corners the characters appear. Murasaki Shikibu is praised for her psychological insights into the feelings of men and women so it is only fitting that the images portray the same intensity. The story went through a revival in the Edo period, when courtiers and merchants in Kyoto started to adopted courtly aesthetics. There was also a rise in literacy during the Edo which resulted in more reproduction of The Tale of Genji. Woodblock versions of the story were made and sold relatively cheaply which meant more people were familiar with the standard images.