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

The Tale of Murasaki

murasaki liza dalby

I’ve admired Liza Dalby’s work since I read her book Geisha when I was 16. I will admit that I haven’t yet read the Tale of Genji, but I decided to delve into Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki anyway in the hopes of getting a feel for the world of Genji and 10th/11th century Japan.

And this book definitely gave me a feel for it and more. Dalby tells the story of the court lady ‘Murasaki’ in the first person, chronicling her life in and out of court, her loves and family and her writing of what many people recognise as the world’s first novel.

yoshitoshi Murasaki

There is a certain vividness to the account that makes the reader yearn for the landscapes and fabrics, poetic courtships and court intrigues of Murasaki’s world. There are a few footnotes throughout the book, with interesting tidbits like the fact that in Japanese at this time, incense was described as being ‘heard’ not ‘smelled’ and that women inherited the family houses whereas men were expected to make their way through court ambitions in order to gain lodging. Personally, I would have liked more of these fascinating side-notes but there is still plenty in the story itself that signals great depth of research on Dalby’s part.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Tale of Murasaki and if the plot lags in parts, this is redeemed by the attentiveness to detail and vividness of the atmosphere.