The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

I was musing on the small pleasures in life this morning: hot, clean water on a cold day; the scent of flowers that catches you unawares when walking through a dormant winter’s garden; the taste and texture of home-baked bread, warm from the oven. They brought to mind the work of a Japanese lady, Sei Shōnagon, writing in the 990s and early 1000s, at around the same time as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I first encountered her work when reading an anthology of poetry as a teenager. I was struck by the elegance and lucidity of her expression.

The work of Lady Shōnagon consists of a collection of poetry, stories, musings, and descriptions, all of which have no particular linking narrative other than what she was thinking of at any moment. There are lists, poems, descriptions of interesting happenings at court, and some opinions of her contemporaries. It gives us a fascinating glimpse into this most ordered of ancient hierarchical societies.

Madam Revenant, Going Postal
Sei Shōnagon, illustration from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu (Edo period)
user:Ultratomio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
According to Meredith McKinney, one of her later translators, Sei Shōnagon’s writing in The Pillow Book was originally meant for her eyes only, but part of it was revealed to the Court by accident “when she inadvertently left it [her writing] on a cushion she put out for a visiting guest, who eagerly carried it off despite her pleas.”  Whether by design, or by accident, we are fortunate to be able to share some of her thoughts today. Some small fragments of the much more detailed book:

Moving Things

The cry of a deer.

In a garden during the late autumn, the dewdrops glittering like jewels on the reeds.

River bamboo swaying in the evening breeze.

To wake up at dawn or in the middle of the night—this is always moving.

Two young people are in love with each other; but someone is in their way and they are prevented from doing as they want.

A mountain village in the snow.

An attractive man or woman in mourning.

A dilapidated house overgrown with tall grass; the garden is rank with sage-brush and other weeds; the moon shines so brightly over the whole scene that there is not a single dark corner; and the wind blows gently.

When crossing a river in bright moonlight, I love to see the water scatter in showers of crystal beneath the oxen’s feet.

On Lovers

Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash—one really begins to hate him.

You have learned
How to be hard-hearted, from me!
But to promise, then not call –
Who taught you that, I wonder?

Hateful Things

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.

I hate the sight of men in their cups who shout, poke their fingers in their mouths, stroke their beards, and pass on the wine to their neighbours with cries of “Have some more! Drink up!” They tremble, shake their heads, twist their faces, and gesticulate like children who are singing, “We’re off to see the governor!” I have seen really well-bred people behave like this and I find it most distasteful.

One is just about to be told some interesting piece of news when a baby starts crying.

Embarrassing Things

While entertaining a visitor, one hears some servants chatting without any restraint in one of the back rooms. It is embarrassing to know that one’s visitor can overhear. But how to stop them?

A man whom one loves gets drunk and keeps repeating himself.

To have spoken about someone not knowing that he could overhear. This is embarrassing even if it be a servant or some other completely insignificant person.

Parents, convinced that their ugly child is adorable, pet him and repeat the things he has said, imitating his voice.

Lying awake at night, one says something to one’s companion, who simply goes on sleeping.

Madam Revenant, Going Postal
Sei Shōnagon in a late 17th-century illustration
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some things never change!

So, dear Postaliers, what would be on your lists?

© Madam Revenant 2019

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