Murasaki Shikibu

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To be pleasant, gentle, calm and self-possessed: this is the basis of good taste and charm in a woman.

Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部 Murasaki Shikibu, c. 973–c. 1014 or c 1025) was a novelist, poet, and servant of the imperial court during the Heian period of Japan. She is the author of the Tale of Genji.


The Diary of Lady Murasaki[edit]

Do they really look upon me as such a dull thing, I wonder? But I am what I am.
  • Seeing the water birds on the lake increase in number day by day, I thought to myself how nice it would be if it snowed before we got back to the Palace—the garden would look so beautiful; and then, two days later, while I was away on a short visit, lo and behold, it did snow. As I watched the rather drab scene at home, I felt both depressed and confused. For some years now I had existed from day to day in listless fashion, taking note of the flowers, the birds in song, the way the skies change from season to season, the moon, the frost and snow, doing little more than registering the passage of time. How would it all turn out? The thought of my continuing loneliness was unbearable, and yet I had managed to exchange sympathetic letters with those of like mind—some contacted via fairly tenuous connections—who would discuss my trifling tales and other matters with me; but I was merely amusing myself with fictions, finding solace for my idleness in foolish words. Aware of my own insignificance, I had at least managed for the time being to avoid anything that might have been considered shameful or unbecoming; yet here I was, tasting the bitterness of life to the very full.
  • So all they see of me is a façade. There are times when I am forced to sit with them and on such occasions I simply ignore their petty criticisms, not because I am particularly shy but because I consider it pointless. As a result, they now look upon me as a dullard.
    "Well, we never expected this!" they all say. "No one liked her. They all said she was pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous and scornful; but when you meet her, she is strangely meek, a completely different person altogether!"
    How embarrassing! Do they really look upon me as such a dull thing, I wonder? But I am what I am. Her Majesty has also remarked more than once that she had thought I was not the kind of person with whom she could ever relax, but that I have now become closer to her than any of the others. I am so perverse and standoffish. If only I can avoid putting off those for whom I have a genuine regard.
    • trans. Richard Bowring
  • To be pleasant, gentle, calm and self-possessed: this is the basis of good taste and charm in a woman. No matter how amorous or passionate you may be, as long as you are straightforward and refrain from causing others embarrassment, no one will mind. But women who are too vain and act pretentiously, to the extent that they make others feel uncomfortable, will themselves become the object of attention; and once that happens, people will find fault with whatever they say or do: whether it be how they enter a room, how they sit down, how they stand up or how they take their leave. Those who end up contradicting themselves and those who disparage their companions are also carefully watched and listened to all the more. As long as you are free from such faults, people will surely refrain from listening to tittle-tattle and will want to show you sympathy, if only for the sake of politeness. I am of the opinion that when you intentionally cause hurt to another, or indeed if you do ill through mere thoughtless behavior, you fully deserve to be censured in public. Some people are so good-natured that they can still care for those who despise them, but I myself find it very difficult. Did the Buddha himself in all his compassion ever preach that one should simply ignore those who slander the Three Treasures? How in this sullied world of ours can those who are hard done by be expected to reciprocate in kind?
    • trans. Richard Bowring
  • When my brother...was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening with him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to grasp and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: "Just my luck!" he would say. "What a pity she was not born a man!" But then I gradually realized that people were saying "It's bad enough when a man flaunts his Chinese learning; she will come to no good," and since then I have avoided writing the simplest character. My handwriting is appalling.
    • trans. Richard Bowring
  • It is useless to talk with those who do not understand one and troublesome to talk with those who criticize from a feeling of superiority. Especially one-sided persons are troublesome. Few are accomplished in many arts and most cling narrowly to their own opinion.
    • In Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan
  • Sei Shōnagon is a smug and horrible person. She acts so smart and is always writing in true [Chinese] characters, but if you look closely, you can find lots of mistakes. People who try that hard to be different from everyone else always end up falling behind, with trouble waiting in their future; and people who are that affected act all mono no aware and attend all the interesting events even when they're lonely and bored, so that in the end the affectation stops being an act. How exactly are things going to end well for a person like that?
  • Unforgettably horrible is the naked body. It really does not have the slightest charm.

Tale of Genji[edit]

No art or learning is to be pursued halfheartedly...and any art worth learning will certainly reward more or less generously the effort made to study it.
  • Mono no aware.
    • The sadness of things.
    • Passim. Cf. Lacrimae rerum.
    • Variant translations:
      • The pathos of things.
      • A sensitivity to things.
      • The sorrow of human existence.
  • "No art or learning is to be pursued halfheartedly," His Highness replied, "...and any art worth learning will certainly reward more or less generously the effort made to study it."

The Tale of Genji, trans. Arthur Waley[edit]

[The art of the novel] happens because the storyteller's own experience of men and things...has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart.
  • Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.
    • Ch. 1: Kiritsubo
  • Ceaseless as the interminable voices of the bell-cricket, all night till dawn my tears flow.
    • Ch. 1
  • It is in general the unexplored that attracts us.
    • Ch. 9: Aoi
  • Though the snow-drifts of Yoshino were heaped across his path, doubt not that whither his heart is set, his footsteps shall tread out their way.
    • Ch. 19: A Wreath of Cloud
  • Does it not move you strangely, the love-bird's cry, tonight when, like the drifting snow, memory piles up on memory?
    • Ch. 20: Asagao
  • [The art of the novel] does not simply consist in the author's telling a story about the adventures of some other person. On the contrary, it happens because the storyteller's own experience of men and things, whether for good or ill—not only what he has passed through himself, but even events which he has only witnessed or been told of—has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart.
    • Ch. 25: The Glow-Worm
  • Anything whatsoever may become the subject of a novel, provided only that it happens in this mundane life and not in some fairyland beyond our human ken.
    • Ch. 25
  • I have never thought there was much to be said in favor of dragging on long after all one's friends were dead.
    • Ch. 29: The Royal Visit
  • One ought not to be unkind to a woman merely on account of her plainness, any more than one had a right to take liberties with her merely because she was handsome.
    • Ch. 36: Kashiwagi
  • You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world's decay.
    • Ch. 40: The Law
  • Think not that I have come in quest of common flowers; but rather to bemoan the loss of one whose scent has vanished from the air.
    • Ch. 41: Mirage

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