starlady: (tomoyo magic hope)
[personal profile] starlady
Sei Shônagon. Makura no sôshi | The Pillow Book (ca. 1005). Trans. Meredith McKinney. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Meredith McKinney has done the world a great service by bringing out a new, comprehensive and compulsively readable version of Sei Shônagon's idiosyncratic classic of Heian literature in English. The previous widely-known version by Ivan Morris, while eminently literary, omitted most of the sections of lists of things with which Sei sprinkles her miscellany, and which form a vital part of the book, conveying much more of her worldview and the culture it came from than at first one realizes.

Sei Shônagon was in service at the court of Empress Teishi from roughly 993 to 1000, several years older than many of her fellow gentlewomen and far outstripping many of them in literary-poetic talent; The Pillow Book is among other things a selected recollection of various moments from the acme of Teishi and her branch of the Fujiwara family's glory, which was cut short in 995 with her father Regent Michitaka's sudden death. Her brothers Korechika and Taka'ie were easily shunted aside by their uncle Michinaga, who married his daughter Shôshi to the Emperor Ichijô on the day of the birth of Teishi's son and who went on to subsidize Murasaki Shikibu's service at Shôshi's court at the summit of Fujiwara and Heian glory, recorded vividly in Murasaki's diary and heavily fictionalized in The Tale of Genji. Sei, associated with Teishi and Michitaka despite her well-known admiration for Michinaga, left the court after her mistress's death in childbirth, and completed The Pillow Book, probably close kin to the commonplace books that many aristocrats and courtiers of both genders kept at their bedsides, sometime later. She did so without the official patronage that supported Murasaki's diary, which is obviously meant as a public record of Michinaga's magnificence and munificence, giving The Pillow Book the freedom to be more personal.

I enjoyed this book a lot, partly because while Sei is very much of her time she is also in some important ways quite a contrarian to it--indeed, her admiration for Michinaga makes perfect sense, as she and Michinaga obviously shared a certain determination to enjoy life and the pleasure it offers, without focusing unduly on its sorrows. In this they stood in stark contrast to the prevailing mood in the literature of the period that survives and especially in Murasaki's work of mono no aware--but more on this later. If there is something in the "Japanese character" that is enamoured of the romance of failure, as 20thC scholars have argued, Sei and Michinaga were entirely entranced with success.

It's hard to imagine a society more different from the modern world than Heian Japan, and even within the scope of classical societies Heian Japan presents a challenge, but one of the marvelous things about The Pillow Book is that every so often a tesseract opens across the abyss of years and Sei seems to be describing experiences that are available to anyone in Kyoto:

The lamps that burn in front of the sacred image [at Kiyomizu-dera] are not the usual ones, but those that people offer as dedicatory lamps for the inner sanctum, They burn quite terrifyingly fiercely, and he sight of the sacred image glittering in the light overwhelms you with reverence. The priests gathered on the dedication platform before the altar keep raising aloft the dedicatory petitions of the pilgrims, swaying slightly as they intone the accompanying vows and prayers. Such an incessant drone of voices fills the hall that it's impossible to distinguish any individual prayer, yet the straining voices of the priests still manage to carry clearly above all the surrounding noise, and you'll suddenly catch an occasional phrase--'one thousand lamps offered with the humble prayers of So-and-so,' or the like. (§115)

You have an urge to go on a pilgrimage to Inari Shrine, and as you're laboriously gasping your way up the steep mountainside to the middle shrine, you're filled with admiration to see others who've obviously started behind you go climbing straight up without the least effort; when you arrive, there they stand, already at their worship. (§151)

I've had both those experiences, and not just in Kyoto, either; there aren't as many differences between now and then as we tend to assume, I always think, and we often fixate on things that weren't actually crucial. There's a tendency in Heian studies to see the period as the time when a quintessentially "Japanese" identity was somehow consolidated, but one never actually sees any trace of that in the literature of the period and it's essentially a modern nationalist construction. (I follow Tom LaMarre in his emphasis on the period's cosmopolitanism.) Of course court society was its own closed world, and the classism of the aristocrats is so entrenched as to be breathtaking when one actually considers it.

The real uniqueness of the Heian world is its emphasis on what I've called literary-poetic talent above, which might be called song if we really needed just one word for it and which was the single skill that equalized all the members of aristocratic society regardless of birth or gender--the ability to compose witty, punning poetry that picked up on and wove in allusions to the acknowledge poetic canon of two societies, in a tasteful fashion. Sei Shônagon, the daughter and granddaughter of famous poets, excelled in this skill, and frequently bested even the men around her with her knowledge, somewhat unseemly for a woman, of the Chinese classics.

Sei's work is quite different from the other surviving works of Heian women--the artfully constructed rhetorical arguments of the Kagerô nikki (written by a relative of Murasaki) and its cousins, Murasaki's romance-grown-interiority/novel Genji monogatari--in its tone, but it shares the same knowingly constructed literary persona, couched to be private but well aware that any text was subject to "public" distribution--indeed, the close quarters at which aristocrats lived and the integral role eavesdropping and overhearing and spying on others, or choosing to pretend one had not done so when one had played in social interactions, obviates the Western public-private binary. Women's position over the Heian period degraded, so that in the beginning they participated in public poetry contests but by its height were pathologically concerned with not being seen, while by the end they had lost their inheritance and property rights entirely, but words and their shaping, as well as one's dress, were still the means by which one established a reputation in society. Yet it is this women's literature that has come to dominate our understanding of the origins of Japanese literature, and this female persona that even men of the time adopted when they wished to speak of similar concerns--thus betraying, in an unlikely way, the social construction of gender.

I like Sei because the transience of things never gets her down for long, and her writing provides a full-bore corrective to Ivan Morris and his conception of the Heian courtiers as passive layabouts stricken with mono no aware day in and day out. This stands in real contrast to Murasaki, whose writing is drenched in that awareness and in comparison with whom Sei Shônagon has traditionally come off quite poorly; indeed, in Liza Dalby's novel The Tale of Murasaki Murasaki more or less has depression, while in her brief appearance Sei is obnoxious, poor, and aggressively direct. It's disappointing to see Dalby falling in with the party line of mostly male scholars and denigrating Sei, who does provide a foil for Murasaki, but in far more interesting ways than the slander of later critics would indicate.

Has anyone seen the movie?

  • Thomas Lamarre, Uncovering Heian Japan
  • Tomiko Yoda, Gender and National Literature
  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince (wrong about marriage customs)
  • Liza Dalby, The Tale of Murasaki
  • John Wallace, Objects of Discourse
Identity URL: 
Account name:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
HTML doesn't work in the subject.


If you are unable to use this captcha for any reason, please contact us by email at

Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.