The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

20190917 The Pillow Book 1

This beautiful Folio Society edition was first published by them in 1979 and my copy is the 4th printing from 2015, it is bound in black artificial moire silk blocked in gold with the title in Japanese characters. The original book was written during the late Heian Period, between 900 and 1000AD, by one of the ladies at the Japanese emperors court and is a rather strange combination of observations, being whatever she felt like writing down at the time. The translation used is that of Ivan Morris from 1967 and he has numbered each of the entries unlike some other translators. It is literally a pillow book because it was a notebook kept by the bed for use when inspiration struck some of the entries are fascinating glimpses into life at court whilst others are just odd lists of objects or places for example entry 140:

Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl. A rush mat. The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

Others really are simple lists as in section 108

Hot Springs
Nanakuri, Arima and Tamatsukuri

There are about 150 of these simple lists on subjects as varied as Peaks, Plains, Markets etc. spread through the text. Whether they were just particular favourites it is impossible to tell as very rarely is any context given. The third passage however lets us visit the court itself…

Especially delightful is the first day of the First Month, when the mists so often shroud the sky. Everyone pays great attention to his appearance and dresses with the utmost care. What a pleasure it is to see them all offer their congratulations to the Emperor and celebrate their own new year!

This is the day when members of the nobility who live outside the Palace arrive in their magnificently decorated carriages to admire the blue horses. As the carriages are drawn over the ground-beam of the Central Gate, there is always a tremendous bump, and the heads of the women passengers are knocked together; the combs fall out of their hair, and may be smashed to pieces if the owners are not careful. I enjoy the way everyone laughs when this happens.

I remember one occasion when I visited the Palace to see the procession of blue horses. Several senior courtiers were standing outside the guard-house of the Left Division; they had borrowed bows from the escorts, and, with much laughter, were twanging them to make the blue horses prance. Looking through one of the gates of the Palace enclosure, I could dimly make out a garden fence, near which a number of ladies, several of them from the Office of Grounds, went to and fro. What lucky women, I thought, who could walk about the Nine-Fold Enclosure as though they had lived there all their lives! Just then the escorts passed close to my carriage, remarkably close, in fact, considering the vastness of the Palace grounds, and I could actually see the texture of their faces. Some of them were not properly powdered; here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like the dark patches of earth in a garden where the snow has begun to melt. When the horses in the procession reared wildly, I shrank into the back of my carriage and could no longer see what was happening.

It is fascinating to see what happens during the period of appointments. However snowy and icy it may be, candidates of the Fourth and Fifth Ranks come to the Palace with their official requests. Those who are still young and merry seem full of confidence. For the candidates who are old and white-haired things do not go so smoothly. Such men have to apply for help from people with influence at Court; some of them even visit ladies-in-waiting in their quarters and go to great lengths in pointing out their own merits. If young women happen to be present, they are greatly amused. As soon as the candidates have left, they mimic and deride them, something that the old men cannot possibly suspect as they scurry from one part of the Palace to another, begging everyone, “Please present my petition favourably to the Emperor” and “Pray inform Her Majesty about me.” It is not so bad if they finally succeed, but it really is rather pathetic when all their efforts prove in vain.

This passage is quite revealing about Sei, she is quite often arrogant and demeaning to others, she also finds it funny to cause problems for people she regards as her social inferiors. In this she is not alone at least according to her own accounts. Entry 292 describes an encounter with a man who has lost everything when his house burnt down following a fire in the Imperial haylofts…

We all burst out laughing at this, including the mistress of the robes; I took a sheet of paper and wrote

If the vernal sun burns strong enough
To sprout the young grass roots
Even a place like Yodo plain
Can ill survive its heat

‘Kindly give him this’ I told Mama throwing the paper to her. With loud laughter Mama handed the paper to the man.

They then instructed him to get somebody to read it to him and set off to the palace roaring with laughter as he set off believing that he had a record slip granting him money. She also claims that when the Empress was told about this she also found if funny.

But for all the casual cruelty of her interactions with others the book is still an important document into the lives of Japanese courtiers over 1000 years ago. She is free (and frequent) with her choice of lovers and this is also clearly normal as is the expectation that as soon as the gentleman has gone home in the morning that he would write a carefully considered letter to her using his finest calligraphy and choose a handsome page to deliver it. We are further told that he should not rush off on leaving in the morning but should linger a while, however if he is leaving during the night then spending time getting formally dressed is not acceptable as who would see him and he should just go when decent. What things look like or at least appear is everything to the ladies of the court, a deep knowledge of poetry and an ability to produce their own lines at a moments notice and of course write them with beautiful lettering is vital.

20190917 The Pillow Book 2

I was simultaneously fascinated by and surprised by the details in this book, admittedly as Sei herself says at the end this was not intended for publication, it was her notes for her own pleasure, but it has gone on to be one of the classics of Japanese literature. We do not even know her real name, Sei is either a pseudonym or possibly a family name and Shōnagon is actually her title (a minor counsellor of the fifth rank). She was however of the class that would place her in the court as a daughter of a provincial governor and a long distant descendant of the former Emperor Temmo (630 to 686AD). She was a part of the Yokihito, literally ‘The Good People’. who comprised the aristocracy, and they preserved a complete lack of knowledge and indeed interest of the Tadahito, ‘Mere People’, which comprised the vast majority of the Japanese population. As such she can tell us nothing regarding the life of most Japanese at the time but the rarefied existence at the very top that she enjoyed is fascinating. In fact the Emperor whilst running the country at least in name was for centuries merely a puppet of the Fujiwaras family who were careful to never actually become Emperor but were always the power behind the throne and ensured that the cultivated art inspired court remained completely distant from the people so they could get on with actually controlling the country.

It was an interesting time, the Heian period lasted well over three centuries and there are few other records for us to see what was happening during that period. Sei Shōnagon has left us this record and it is well worth finding a copy and reading.

Note: I have now seen the Penguin Classics version of Ivan Morris’s translation, first published in 1971, and in that he edited it to remove the simple lists so that instead of 326 sections there are only 185. This means that the section numbers above don’t work with this edition. I have therefore given below a cross-reference for passages quoted above:

  • 140 – Things that give a clean feeling becomes 97
  • 108 – Hot Springs is omitted
  • 3 – Especially delightful is the first day becomes 2
  • 292 – We all burst out laughing becomes 168
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