Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Murasaki Shikibu


Murasaki Shikibu (970-1031 A.D.) lived in Japan during the Heian period. She was the daughter of a minor court official and a court lady of the Fuiwara clan. Though forbidden to women at the time, Murasaki learned Chinese form her father, mastering it more quickly than her brother. This opened many doors for her, including access to more texts and learning. Early on in life, she hid her learning due to her culture's attitude that educated women were proud (in a negative sense). But eventually she would tutor the Empress Shoshi and various other high-ranking women at court in academic matters, including Chinese. Murasaki Shikibu is thought to be a nickname of sorts; her real name is unknown.

Her philosophical contributions come to us through her literary work. Primarily, her Genji Monogatari, a novel that examines many philosophical and religious issues through the narrative story of the story's female protagonist (Ukifune), is considered part of Japanese classical literature. Genji Monogatari deals with determinism, free will, society, religion, predestination, and cultural perspectives on women. Murasaki has Ukifune seek enlightenment and self-direction in a culture where women were considered a lesser form and were not able to influence their own destinies. Her work is complex and unique considering her time and culture.

Personal Response

Murasaki's story was unlike anything I expected to read during this time period. Much of what I've read and studied in college stems from the Western tradition. But Murasaki was a Japanese woman who seems to have dealt with many of the same issues in her own culture far away from European influence. In her time the primary religion was combination of a Shinto and Buddhism. I found the similar challenges of Murasaki surprising. She faced prejudice for her learning, and religion was used to limit the education of women during her time.

Murasaki is a somewhat nontraditional philosopher because her contribution to philosophy is mainly literary. She wrote her philosophy in the form of a story rather than an essay, but she still managed to convey deeply philosophical arguments. By having her protagonist, Ukifune, not truly fit within Japanese society Murasaki suggests that the society's perspective of women does not provide a coherent worldview for women.

I enjoyed discovering that Murasaki did not limit her content to challenging sexist views of women. She covered things such as existentialism, death, reincarnation, objectification, and freedom. All of this was done through a narrative. My impression of Murasaki based on this reading is that she was a thoughtful, intelligent woman who was fortunate enough to have access to education in a time where it may have been withheld.


Chapter 1 "Murasaki Shikibu" of A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500-1600 by Mary Ellen Waithe

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