BOOK REPORT: THE DIARY OF LADY MURASAKI SHIKIBU
The author who brought to us The Tale of Genji, a novel now regarded as the first written novel in history, left behind an arguably more treasurable artifact: a diary that opens a window into history. The Diary of Lady Murasaki by Lady Murasaki Shikibu gives the reader a glimpse of the imperial court during eleventh century Japan and presents the past in an illuminated vision. Being an attendant in the imperial court, Lady Murasaki is frequently involved with the activities of elite Japanese women. Her day-to-day interaction with the nobles and elites enhance her account with the curious perspective of an elite female. As a woman, Lady Murasaki's descriptions are oriented around clothing and appearance, and add a female touch to this historical record. This personal perspective introduces a new dimension to the themes within the diary since Lady Murasaki not only discusses life within the court, but also her own perception of customs, rivalries, and aesthetics. Her added insights create an illuminated vision that allows the reader to feel what it is like to be an inhabitant of the Heian court and to acquire a better understanding of the historical events within the era. Lady Murasaki's diary is influenced by eleventh century Heian's experience of exchanging political power. The central state, which had always possessed the highest authority, was steadily losing control. By Lady Murasaki's time, the court was completely dominated by one clan, the Fujiwara clan 1. At the centre of this absolute power is a man by the name of Fujiwara Michinaga, who, after competing in the earlier political struggle, emerged victorious through a network of marriage ties 1. His rise to power was realized when his daughter, Sh¬ōshi, was secured as Empress. It is under this entourage that Lady Murasaki, of a different and much less important branch of the Fujiwara, was introduced as a companion-cum-tutor for the Empress 2. Michinaga's presence oppressed the Emperor making him nothing more than an iconic model. Richard Bowring quotes, "the Emperor's daily existence was largely involved with ritual, and his links to the actual machinery of government were extremely tenuous" 1. This established hierarchy of power defines the language with which Lady Murasaki addresses her superiors. Murasaki refers to Fujiwara Michinaga as "His Excellency", his daughter, the empress, as "Her Majesty", and the emperor as "His Majesty" 3. With this hierarchy of control, it is not surprising that "His Majesty" is mentioned no more than half a dozen times, and that the focus is primarily on "Her Majesty" and "His Excellency". This tone and courteousness suggests the rigid structure of a social hierarchy.
A strongly implicit point within The Diary of Lady Murasaki is social ranking. During the Heian era, power held by males is transferred only to males. Only by having intimate relationship or manipulating a male can women possibly have any recognition within the court. Lady Murasaki remarks this by noting how ecstatic she and the ladies-in-waiting were, to see that the newborn baby was a boy 4. Her, and the other ladies-in-waiting's enthusiasm arose because the new prince is the embodiment of the hopes of the Fujiwara clan for the next generation. Michinaga also noted this, "all our hopes come true!" 5. It is unquestionable that in Lady Murasaki's age, boys were preferred over girls, since boys were capable of continuing a family's bloodline and receiving power. Even Lady Murasaki's father pitied the fact that Lady Murasaki was not born a man 6. Lady Murasaki's mention of his father's remark expresses the historical importance of heredity for the sake of power transfer. Obsession with power in the past justifies behaviours within the rankings of men. Michinaga challenges past celebrations by stating that this celebration is marvelous above all others. This, as Lady Murasaki is quick to...
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