Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

sei shonagon

In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful. – Source

Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017) was a Japanese lady who served under Empress Teishi in the late 10th to very early 11th century. Her father was a poet and scholar and Sei Shōnagon was intimately concerned with poetry, politeness, nature, court behaviour. Her Pillow Book is a compilation of poems, notes, observations, essays, etc. that concern all these topics and more. It is in what is known as the zuihitsu ( 随筆 ) style, that is a collection of commentaries in various forms that usually respond to the author’s surroundings and daily life. Perhaps a little like the Western commonplace book, although with more focus on the author’s diaristic voice than the collection of quotations, knowledge, etc. Or, as another blogger suggests, not unlike many modern day blogs!

sei shonagon 2

On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster. – ‘Things that make your heart beat faster’, Source

The Pillow Book contains a number of lists such as things that should be large, things that should be short, things that are hateful, things that make the heart beat faster… I think this is my favourite aspect of the Pillow Book. The joy of the list should never be underestimated! It reminds me of Western medieval writers around the same time as Sei Shōnagon, who took equal joy in crafting lists of things like knowledge, theology and angels. Well, Sei Shōnagon is perhaps more interested in the observational; in lists of life’s minutiae, the peculiarities of her own existence and surroundings. But the idea of compiling a list of things that make the heart beat faster is, to me, a wonderful way of encapsulating a variety of small events into an overarching category that suddenly makes you appreciate those little things so much more.

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shōnagon is known to have been rivals with the other great writer of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji). It is often said that Sei Shōnagon is conceited, ‘bitchy’, even, in her Pillow Book. Without a doubt, she is no people-pleaser and not one to hold back her opinions (even if they might grate on modern ears – she was no fan of the commoner). But she was learned, witty and if she was sometimes harsh, well, she was a commentator – who doesn’t revel in pointing the finger at the irritations of court life?

‘On things that are hateful’ – A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement. –  Source

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2 thoughts on “Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

  1. o my god, Shonagon was a blogger! I know that was Sarcasm Alley’s idea but you have to be a member of some salon or other to comment there so… This is so timely as I’ve been reading The Pillow Book over the Christmas holidays. It’s now a classic and people wonder how a woman could be so prominent 1000 years ago but wasn’t this considered a minor art? The ‘real’ literature is what the men were doing: in Chinese.

    • idrilreid says:

      I think it was considered fairly minor – after all, women weren’t generally taught Chinese calligraphy and Japanese hiragana writing (their syllabic alphabet) was used as an easier way for women to write, since they weren’t educated as highly. Hence hiragana was called 女手 (onnade, ‘women’s writing’). But I’ve heard an Asian history scholar remark that while the men of Japan at that time were writing mimicry of the sophisticated Chinese style, there were women using their freedom from ‘high’ literary expectation to write the first major works not in imitation Chinese style but in the burgeoning Japanese style.

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