The Tale of Genji: The world’s first novel?

Written 1,000 years ago, the epic story of 11th-Century Japan, The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman.

Written 1,000 years ago, the Japanese epic The Tale of Genji is often called the world’s first novel. Following the life and romances of Hikaru Genji, it was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. The tale had an unprecedented global influence; in 1925 an English translation by Arthur Waley was reviewed by Virginia Woolf in British Vogue.

The most recent English translation is an epic 1,300 pages long. It’s a “monumental work of literature,” says Melissa McCormick, a professor of Japanese art and culture at Harvard University.

“Murasaki Shikibu was writing in a mode of literature that was, at her time, fairly denigrated. Fiction was at the lower rung of the scales of the genre hierarchies,” McCormick explains. But despite it being fiction and being written by a woman, The Tales of Genji was such a tour de force that “it had to be taken seriously,” she says.

Learn more about this epic tale and its author by clicking play on the video above.

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