Japanese, c. 965–?
Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book) is a hybrid work whose combination of narrative sketches, desultory reflections, and categorical lists was held in generic limbo, known by its author and title or simply as “book” from the time of its composition in the late 10th century to 1774. It was not until then that the essayist Ban Kōkei labeled it zuihitsu, the Japanese transcription of a Chinese word that means “following the brush,” the equivalent of “essay” in Japanese. The Pillow Book fits the literal sense of essay, reading like a series of trials in various styles and subjects, and evokes the essayistic feeling of close and unpredictable contact with the authorial world.
From these pages we know what was considered unthinkable, vulgar, precious, and sane in her milieu.
The courtly Heian period was known for its women writers. While schooling meant the continental classics for men, who employed a form of Chinese to write poetry and record important matters, women of the aristocracy wrote largely in the vernacular, using a simplified syllabic writing system. Kana, alternatively called onnade, or the “woman’s hand,” eliminated the need for most Chinese graphs. Sei was a master of the vernacular, with its agglutinative forms, honorifics, elliptical phrasing, and paratactic structures. Her lyric passages flow with rhythmic asymmetry. Although literate females knew the Chinese tradition, if mostly through translation (China was the source of Japan’s writing system, and added depth to its literary heritage), it was considered inappropriate to flaunt such knowledge. The greater ease with which women could express themselves, and the greater poignancy of their lives in a society that felt the ideal love affair should end in the woman’s abandonment, have been credited for women’s monumental achievements in belles-lettres.
Sei Shōnagon is the least retiring of these writers. Eager to display her Chinese learning, she uses allusions with such dexterity that it requires committees of men to match her. In vernacular poetry as well she informs us that her talent earned admiration among her peers, not to mention her social betters. Whereas resignation to their fates seems to motivate women characters in the fiction of the time, Sei portrays the triumph and insouciance of ladies who cajole the opposite sex and revel in the outcome, even when they are lejft behind. Her own relations with men feature stinging repartee rather than tears. Above all, Sei evinces wit and good taste, frequently judging things okashi, a term of approbation whose meanings include “delightful,” “splendid,” and “fascinating.”
Her satire on the clumsy lover who knocks his cap askew while taking his leave in the pre-dawn darkness is delicious; her pronouncements on the ultimate in various kinds of experience, such as the memories provoked by old letters, strike home and incite the reader to join in a game of enumeration.
Much of the impetus for her composition comes from Sei’s mistress, Empress Teishi or Sadako (ruled 977–1000). Courtrelated events in the work span the years 986 to 1000, including the period of Sei’s service from 993 until the untimely death of her patron. Part of the empress’ ammunition in the polygamous struggles of the court was the literary accomplishment of her retinue. Sei never hesitates to enhance the reputation of her patron, who thus appears wiser, fairer, and more amusing than any contemporary.
Considering Sei’s own middling rank, such favoritism is inevitable, but it reminds us that she was writing as a representative of the ideals of a salon as much as an individual. The authority of this group underlies her confident tone.
The meaning of “pillow book” has been extensively debated, but it appears to refer to the inclusion of lists featuring “song pillows” (utamakura), place names established in the poetic tradition. Hills, trees, plants, bridges, temples, and poetry collections themselves are some of the topics Sei covers. Many items seem to form elegant puns, reinforcing another theory that her prototypes included Chinese compendia of witty sayings, such as the miscellany of Li Shang-yin (813–58). The makura may be a chronicle of all that mattered in her circle, and may have been meant to stimulate admiration and conversation among readers, but her work has also been said to resist the act of reading. Its amorphousness presents a challenge to linear comprehension and to fixed notions of the female gender. In her text Sei (or a later emendator) protests her shame that the work has come to light, but also notes its favorable reception—not surprising, she comments, given her perverse habit of disliking what others enjoy. Such modesty is characteristic of East Asian authors, and in no way contradicts her love of attention.
The Pillow Book received less notice over the centuries than classic tales, yet it was copied often enough to produce complicated variants. There are two main divisions, into texts that group similar segments together and texts of random order. Scholars believe the random texts are closest to the original, while the classificatory texts represent medieval redactors’ aims to make the content on Heian era customs more accessible. A critique voiced by a group of women, the Mumyōzoshi of about 1220, aligns The Pillow Book with Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) as a moving work. Medieval anecdotes of Sei’s comeuppance are evidence for a popular view of her as too strident and selfpromoting.
With the introduction of printing and the spread of education from the 17th century, The Pillow Book was widely read and parodied. A recent translation into the patois of fashionable young Japanese women uses exclamation points liberally, capturing the flavor that has so captivated readers. Only the sharp tongue of the woman author kept it from being a premier textbook. Although the notion of antiquarian interest would have appalled Sei (who preferred what was up-to-the-minute), that, combined with her prose style, regarded as the purest in the native language, eventually established the work as a pedagogical model. Generations of Japanese have been vastly enriched by imagining how Sei meant them to complete her opening words, “In spring, it is dawn…”
Real name unknown. Born c. 965 in Kyoto. Daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, governor of Higo, a member of the middle aristocracy. May have briefly married Tachibana no Norimitsu; may have had a son. Lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi (Sadako), c. 993–1000. May have married Fujiwara no Muneyo, a much older man who died before her. Had one daughter. May have become a Buddhist nun. Legends of her extensive travel in later years are unsubstantiated. Probably died at Tsukinowa (her father’s residence), Kyoto.
Essays and Related Prose
Makura no sōshi, edited by Tanaka Jūtarō (fully annotated), 5 vols., 1983, and Watanabe Minoru, 1991; as The Pillow Book, edited and translated by Ivan Morris, 1967, abridged vol., 1991; selections translated by Arthur Waley, 1928
Other writings: poetry.
Bowring, Richard, Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982
Marra, Michele, “Mumyozoshi: Introduction and Translation,” Monumenta Nipponica 39, nos. 2–4 (Summer/Autumn/Winter 1984):Part 1:115–45; Part 2:281–305; Part 3:409– 34
Morris, Ivan, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, New York: Kodansha International, 1994 (original edition, 1964)
Morris, Mark, “Sei Shōnagon’s Poetic Catalogues,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 40, no. 1 (June 1980):5–54
Okada, H.Richard, Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry and Narrating in The Tale of Genji and Other Mid-Heian Texts, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991
Sarra, Edith, “A Poetics of the Gaze in Makura no sōshi” in The Desire for Monogatari, Proceedings of the Second Midwest Research/Pedagogy Seminar on Japanese Literature, edited by Eiji Sekine, West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University, 1994:21– 30
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