229. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (994-1002)

“I never thought that these notes would be read by anyone else, and so I included everything that came into my head, however strange or unpleasant” 

#92. Things without merit (page 159)

Source : The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris, published Penguin, 1971 (ISBN 0140442367)

Thoughts : A collection of thoughts, memories, impressions, snatches of poetry and gossip written privately by Sei Shonagon, a favoured lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako. Unlike a diary, there is no sense of chronology to the notes, which move between seasons and subjects at whim.

I started off enjoying her description of places and people, but the disjointed nature of the entries meant I could only read it in short bursts. As I kept reading, torn between continuing and stopping, I came to enjoy Sei as a person, her dalliances with men, her insecurities,  and her overwhelming love and loyalty to the Emperor and Empress, despite her callous attitudes to commoners. She seemed to glory in her insular lifestyle, both physically behind screens and fans, and socially.

It was also an era and lifestyle when the greatest attention to detail led to enjoyment of what we would now consider simple pleasures : plants and flowers, scents, clothes, the weather, music and poetry. In fact, a major part of court life required a knowledge, memory and resourcefulness in applying appropriate lines of famous poems to each and every event or encounter. Sei’s favourable position and others’ high opinion of her had much to do with her abilities in this area.

There would be days of abstinence announced: inauspicious days when the entire Court had to stay indoors and abstain from eating, sexual intercourse and reading letters. The last of these three induced the most discomfort by far. If a young man spent the night with his favourite lady, he was expected to immediately send her a note or poem twisted around a flower laden branch upon arriving back at his house, as a symbol and reassurance of his continued interest.

The Pillow Book was one of a few surviving examples of writing by court ladies (another being the Diary of Lady Murasaki, author of The Tale of Genji). Japanese women of this era were less influenced by Chinese language and words than men, and their writing featured more kana and ‘pure’ Japanese.

Favourite lines/passages:

“A preacher ought to be good looking. For if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on his as he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly, an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin”   page 53

“I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience”                                                                           page 218

“One has gone to bed, and is about to doze off when a mosquito appears, announcing himself in a reedy voice. One can actually feel the wind made by his wings, and, slight though it is, one finds it hateful in the extreme”    page 46

 “When I woke up late at night, the moonlight was pouring in through the window and shining on the bedclothes of all the other people in the room. Its clear white brilliance moved me greatly. It is on such occasions that people write poetry”      page 212-213

“When crossing a river in bright moonlight, I love to see the water scatter in showers of crystal under the oxen’s feet”                                         page 200

Personal rating:  5/10

In the years 950-1000:

  • Eric the Red discovers Greenland (which is mostly ice) and colonizes it from Iceland (which at the time was heavily forested), 981
  • Hugh Capet elected King of France, founding Capetian Dynasty, 987
  • Ethelred II pays off the Danes in England, 991
  • Polynesians colonize New Zealand, c.1000

At this point we tick over to the next millenium. Only a thousand years to go, give or take. In between reading The Pillow Book entries, I continued creating my reading list of classics, having now reached the 1920s. A current total of 900 titles, of which I have reached #229, therefore 670 more to go. At the rate of one per week, that means another thirteen years at least. Jeepers!



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