As we’ve previously seen, Heian-era aristocrats used poetry to communicate in most areas of life. One major advantage of poetic communication is that one could be indirect and discreet while still conveying a strong message. Murasaki Shikibu, author of “The Tale of Genji”, was a lady-in-waiting to Emperor Ichijo’s young consort, Akiko, daughter of Michinaga Fujiwara.
Michinaga had initially selected Murasaki for his young daughter’s entourage. She was known for her cleverness, as the court of Heian Kyo found “Genji” to be fascinating, and she appears to have been a sort of tutor for Akiko as well. Michinaga was interested in having such a refined, imaginative woman influence his young daughter, who would hopefully be the mother of a future emperor.
He was interested in other aspects of Murasaki as well. Known as a lecherous man, Michinaga certainly attempted to enter Murasaki’s room on at least one occasion. Murasaki heard him knocking on the door outside of her room, and lay quietly, ignoring him. The next day, as was custom, Michinaga sent a poem:
How sad for him who stands the whole night long
- A flightless Kuina bird.
Knocking on your cedar door
Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the Kuina bird
As was also the custom, Murasaki sent a poem in reply that used the same poetic allusions as the initial poem:
Sadder for her who had answered the Kuina’s tap,
For it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door.
Could one rebuff unwanted advances in such a refined manner today?