The greatest work produced during the Heian era was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko. Considered the world’s first novel, Genji is written as an absorbing portrait of Heian court life, the splendor of its rituals, and aesthetic culture. One of the most fascinating passages in the novel is a long conversation among the hero, Genji, and his friends one rainy night about women (where Genji himself remains mostly silent, an interested and sometimes skeptical listener) that has since become known among Genji-philes as “the rainy night disquisition on the types of women.” In this passage, Murasaki Shikibu has a young man from the Ministry of Rites regale Genji and the others with the comic story of his involvement with a very learned woman.

Learning, understood as the ability to read and write Chinese and knowledge of the Chinese classics, was expected of men, and their education in the Academy consisted of it. That it was highly anomalous in a woman to be so learned as to even use mainly Chinese in her correspondence is clear in the men’s incredulous reception of this story. Women were expected to write in the phonetic script called kana, and their essential education consisted of calligraphy, Japanese poetry, and music. As we know from Murasaki’s diary and the allusions to Chinese poems and stories in Genji, she knew Chinese well enough to read and even teach the Empress to read the poet Po Chü-i, though they had to keep these sessions secret. Sei Shônagon, a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, also liked to show off her Chinese knowledge in the Pillowbook, but then she made no secret of her satisfaction in besting men in their own spheres.

The story below features a woman who is so far advanced in her Chinese learning that she becomes her husband’s teacher. It is interesting to note the young man’s attitude of rueful self-deprecation in portraying himself as the student of a woman in a case of reverse gender difference in the field of writing and education.

Source: Seidensticker, Edward, trans. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Chinese Literacy in Women

Tô no Chûjô turned to the young man from the ministry of rites. “You must have interesting stories too.”

“Oh, please. How could the lowest of the low hope to hold your attention?”

“You must not keep us waiting.”

“Let me think a minute.” He seemed to be sorting out memories.

When I was still a student I knew a remarkably wise woman. She was the sort worth consulting about public affairs, and she had a good mind too for the little tangles that come into your private life. Her erudition would have put any ordinary sage to shame. In a word, I was awed into silence.

“I was studying under a learned scholar. I had heard that he had many daughters, and on some occasion or other I had made the acquaintance of this one. The father learned of the affair. Taking out wedding cups, he made reference, among other things, to a Chinese poem about the merits of an impoverished wife. Although not exactly enamored of the woman, I had developed a certain fondness for her, and felt somewhat deferential toward the father. She was most attentive to my needs. I learned many estimable things from her, to add to my store of erudition and help me with my work. Her letters were lucidity itself, in the purest Chinese. None of this Japanese nonsense for her. I found it hard to think of giving her up, and under her tutelage I managed to turn out a few things in passable Chinese myself. And yet—though I would not wish to seem wanting in gratitude, it is undeniable that a man of no learning is somewhat daunted at the thought of being forever his wife’s inferior. So it is in any case with an ignorant one like me; and what possible use could you gentlemen have for so formidable a wife? A stupid, senseless affair, a man tells himself, and yet he is dragged on against his will, as if there might have been a bond in some other life.”

“She seems a most unusual woman.” Genji and Tô no Chûjô were eager to hear more.

Quite aware that the great gentlemen were amusing themselves at his expense, he smiled somewhat impishly. “One day when I had not seen her for rather a long time I had some reason or other for calling. She was not in the room where we had been in the habit of meeting. She insisted on talking to me through a very obtrusive screen. I thought she might be sulking, and it all seemed very silly. And then again—if she was going to be so petty, I might have my excuse for leaving her. But no. She was not a person to let her jealousy show. She knew too much of the world. Her explanation of what was happening poured forth at great length, all of it very well reasoned.

“‘I have been indisposed with a malady known as coryza. Discommoded to an uncommon degree, I have been imbibing of a steeped potion made from bulbaceous herbs. Because of the noisome odor, I will not find it possible to admit of greater propinquity. If you have certain random matters for my attention, perhaps you can deposit the relevant materials where you are.’

“‘Is that so?’ I said. I could think of nothing else to say.

“I started to leave. Perhaps feeling a little lonely, she called after me, somewhat shrilly. ‘When I have disencumbered myself of this aroma, we can meet once more.’

“It seemed cruel to rush off, but the time was not right for a quiet visit. And it was as she said: her odor was rather high. Again I started out, pausing long enough to compose a verse:

“‘The spider must have told you I would come.
Then why am I asked to keep company with garlic?’
I did not take time to accuse her of deliberately putting me off.
She was quicker than I. She chased after me with an answer.
‘Were we two who kept company every night,
What would be wrong with garlic in the daytime?’

“You must admit she was quick with her answers.” He had quietly finished his story.

The two gentlemen, Genji and his friend, would have none of it. “A complete fabrication, from start to finish. Where could you find such a woman? Better to have a quiet evening with a witch.” They thought it an outrageous story, and asked if he could come up with nothing more acceptable.

“Surely you would not wish for a more unusual sort of story?”

The guards officer took up again. “In women as in men, there is no one worse than the one who tries to display her scanty knowledge in full. It is among the least endearing of accomplishments for a woman to have delved into the Three Histories and the Five Classics; and who, on the other hand, can go through life without absorbing something of public affairs and private? A reasonably alert woman does not need to be a scholar to see and hear a great many things. The very worst are the ones who scribble off Chinese characters at such a rate that they fill a good half of letters where they are most out of place, letters to other women. ‘What a bore,’ you say. ‘If only she had mastered a few of the feminine things.’ She cannot of course intend it to be so, but the words read aloud seem muscular and unyielding, and in the end hopelessly mannered. I fear that even our highest of the high are too often guilty of the fault.”