How did Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese court, manage to write the first great novel of world literature? Written circa 1000 CE, the Tale of Genji was in almost all ways a surprise. Unlike most literary traditions, Japanese literature was mostly based on poetry, not on narratives that might have paved the way for the novel. And women, even those from the lower aristocracy, weren’t inducted into the higher reaches of literature. But despite these disadvantages Murasaki prevailed.
One reason for her achievement was that she knew how to handle paper. In Murasaki’s rarified world, screens and walls, blinds and fans, shades, clothes and even weapons were made from pulped plant fibers that were soaked in water and dried in frames. The secret of making paper, along with many other cultural achievements, had come from China, but it was adapted to suit the needs of the Heian Court, where independence from China was becoming increasingly important. Skilled artisans were producing refined types of paper, fueling a culture in which intrigues and affairs remained hidden behind screens, shades, and fans, a culture in which much could be overheard but little could be seen.
In my book The Written World: How Literature Shapes History, I unfold this paper world of the Heian court, along with the most important use of paper, which was writing. Murasaki had to fight for access to high-prestige literature because women, even those from the lower aristocracy, were not taught the Chinese script, in which the literary tradition was composed. Instead, they had to make do with the newer Japanese kana script, which was easier to use because it was developed to work with the sounds of Japanese. In order to learn Chinese letters, Murasaki had to spy on her less-talented brother being tutored until she knew Chinese better than he.
For communication, the Court used a system of short poems, carefully written on and wrapped in precious paper, whose grain and color carried additional significance. Each poem, full of insinuations and in-jokes, demanded an answer. How long would the recipient have to wait for a reply? Would the recipient get the point? On such messages rested matters of state.
We have unusually deep knowledge of the Heian Court because Murasaki did something else with paper: she started chronicling its uses. For this purpose, she invented a story centered on the minor son of an emperor and his passionate love affair with a young woman named Murasaki, after whom the author, whose real name we don’t know, is now named.
Murasaki set her tale a hundred years in the past to avoid political repercussions, but her courtly readers recognized themselves in her pages. Reading it, they wanted to read more, so Murasaki’s episodic tale kept growing from a few chapters to a thousand pages, extending beyond the death of Genji to the next generation. Originally intended for a small audience, perhaps for Murasaki’s daughter alone, the tale started to attract readers from farther afield. Copies written by hand on precious paper and adorned with rich illustrations gave way to printed versions intended for a rising merchant class eager to peer into the hidden world of the court. The Tale of Genji became a classic in Japan, though it wasn’t translated until the late nineteenth century, when an English version brought The Tale of Genji to the Western world. English readers such as Virginia Woolf found, to their great astonishment, that the genre of the novel, supposedly a great European achievement, had been invented hundreds of years earlier, halfway around the world.
In The Written World, I follow paper from Asia to the Arabic world, where this cheap and flexible material fueled the golden age of Arabic letters. It also ushered in a new type of literature, a collection of stories told by the unforgettable Scheherazade. Paper entered Europe via Arab-occupied Spain, just in time to aid in another technological revolution. Gutenberg’s printing press (also inspired by Chinese models), relied on cheap paper for its mass-production of literature.
Paper left a trail of literary innovation, but also of repression, from the Index of Forbidden Books to book burnings. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova even decided to burn her own poems after committing them to memory, out of fear that Stalin, who cared more about poetry than was good for poets, would disapprove of them. But in the long run, paper always won, outliving the oppression of powerful institutions such as the Church or the Soviet Union. Murasaki, the first novelist to celebrate the power of paper, would have been pleased.
Print by Toyokuni Utagawa