Friday 11 October 2019

Breaking News: Chapter 5 of Teika’s Tale of Genji found!

Tale of Genji, known in Japanese as Genji montagari is commonly acknowledged to be the world’s earliest novel. This 54-chapter masterpiece was written in Heian Japan around the year 1010. Its author is a woman, Murasaki Shikibu.

No one knows what happened to the original manuscript of The Tale of Genji. This loss has led many scholars across time to try and reconstruct the original version. One such scholar was Fujiwara no Teika, who lived from approximately 1160 to 1240. (The Fujiwara clan was a powerful family group with strong political and artistic influence in the Heian period.) Teika published a work that was comprised of the first 5 chapters of Tale of Genji, written by comparing multiple surviving copies in order to attain the highest possible level of accuracy. This work, called the Aobyoshibon, which translates as blue cover book, is the earliest known partial copy of The Tale of Genji.

Until a few days ago, we only had the first four chapters of Teika’s version, and the Aobyoshibon was incomplete. However, newspapers in Japan have reported that the 5th chapter has been found and authenticated! It was found in a storeroom chest in the home of 72-year-old Tokyo resident Motofuyu Okochi. Chapter 5 of the work, the Wakamurasaki chapter, contains a crucial moment in the novel when the protagonist, Genji, first encounters his future wife Murasaki. (You may have noticed that the author and the heroine have the same name. We actually do not know the real name of lady Murasaki Shikibu, and it is thought that she chose this sobriquet based on the character of her creation. Murasaki in Japanese means violet.)

Scholars who have examined the newly-found chapter say that it does not differ substantially from later copies, however there are some grammatical inconsistencies. Nevertheless, the discovery of this document marks the addition of a globally significant literary artefact to the existing corpus of Heian period texts. At the time of writing, it is unclear what will happen to the manuscript, whether it will remain under private guardianship or be transferred to a public space.

If you are interested in The Tale of Genji scholarship, this post looks at gender representation in chapters 9 and 24 of the novel.