No Lady Reads Chinese!

It’s no secret that Heian era literature was dominated by women writers. From 900 – 1,000 A.D., the majority of the literary works we still read and enjoy today were written by women, whether Sei Shonagon, Murasaki Shikibu, Lady Sarashina, or Izumi Shikibu. As a result of this phenomenon, the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, was written by one of the aforementioned Heian ladies.

How did women come to dominate early Japanese literature? At the time, women were highly discouraged from reading or writing in Chinese, the official language of the Heian court. The Japanese court at Heian Kyo had mimicked Chinese society in many areas, such as in the city’s grid layout or bureaucracy. Chinese was seen as the “higher” language, and women were not supposed to memorize Chinese poems or read in Chinese.

Murasaki Shikibu, who would later come to dominate the Japanese vernacular, displayed uncommon talent at memorizing Chinese passages as her brother struggled with the same. Her parents pitied that she was not born a boy. In later years, her servants were scandalized at her ability to read Chinese, and prominent collection of Chinese books.

“It’s because she behaves this way that she is so miserable! What kind of woman reads Chinese?!” they wondered.
How about the creator of the world’s first novel?

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Filed under Genji, Ladies, Literature, Murasaki Shikibu

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