About Sei Shonagon  

Source: http://www.f.waseda.jp/mjewel/jlit/index.html

Sei Shonagon (965 - ?)
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Harmondsworth: Penguin (trans. Ivan Morris), 1971 (orig. 997), p. 181

"Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book lists the numerous fancies, irritations, desires of a courtesan of the highly aesthetic Heijan period. It is impressive to read of such a finely-sensed world, where hardly a detail of dress, correspondence or gesture escapes notice. "

The Author

Sei Shônagon, who was born in about 966, was the daughter of Kiyohara Motosuke, one of the compilers of the Gosenshû anthology of waka poetry ("Sei" is the Sinitic reading of the first character used to write "Kiyohara"). After the failure of her first marriage, Sei entered the service of Emperor Ichijô's consort, Teishi (or Sadako), in 993. She was known for her quick wit and sunny disposition, and won a reputation for her familiarity with the Chinese classics, considered an unusual accomplishment for a woman. Her famous rival, Murasaki Shikibu, described her in her diary as a person who liked to show off her knowledge. After Teishi died, Sei left the palace; virtually nothing is known of the rest of her life. She is usually supposed to have spent her final years in solitude.

Textual Background

It is uncertain precisely when and under what circumstances the Pillow Book came to be written, but according to the most widely accepted theory, a first draft was in existence in about 996, a second draft was produced by about 1000, and a final version followed to which additions were made until 1021 at the latest. The Pillow Book as we have it now is composed of more than three hundred sections of varying length. These sections are generally grouped into three categories on the basis of content:

  • Classified lists of items.
  • Diary-like entries mostly describing Sei Shônagon’s daily activities in the palace.
  • Musings on the beauty of nature, the meaning of life, and so on.

There are two main textual traditions associated with the Pillow Book. One, the ruisan-bon tradition, attempts to arrange sections of the manuscript in accordance with the above three categories. The other, called the zassan-bon tradition, forgoes any such arrangement. The ruisan-bon tradition is further divided into Sakai-bon and Maeda-bon manuscripts, while the zassan-bon tradition includes Nôin-bon and sankan-bon manuscripts (the first three appellations are based on the names of the manuscript owners, while the last is a descriptive term referring to a three-volume version of the Pillow Book). As a result of this complicated textual background, trying to match up the sections from all the different editions is a frustrating task indeed, and textual variants are numerous.

The Title

A number of theories have been proposed for the origin of the distinctive title Pillow Book. All are based on the (possibly apocryphal) "Epilogue," in which Fujiwara no Korechika is said to have given his sister the empress a blank notebook (sôshi) and suggested that she use it as a pillow (makura). The following are the interpretations most often proposed for the meaning of "pillow"; the second and third are the ones regarded as most likely to apply.

The reference is to a real pillow for sleeping. The notebook itself may have served as a pillow, or it may have been placed in the drawer of the author's wooden pillow so that it would be close at hand.

Taking "pillow" less literally, it may refer simply to a notebook kept handy (by one's pillow, as it were) for jotting down observations and impressions.

"Pillow" refers to the "pillow words" (makurakotoba) that conventionally modify certain words in waka poetry. Indexes or catalogues of such words were widely circulated in Sei Shônagon’s day, and her notebook -- with its numerous lists -- may originally have been intended to function in much the same way.

Makura may be an allusion to a poem in the Chinese anthology Hakushi monjû. The poem describes an old man with white hair who had nothing to do all day long, so he slept with a book for a pillow. This image of listless solitude may have struck later readers as appropriate in view of Sei Shônagon’s life after leaving the palace.

Opening Lines of The Pillow Book

English In spring, it is the dawn. The sky at the edge of the mountains slowly starts to brighten with the approach of day, and the thinly trailing clouds nearby are tinted purple.
In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful.

In autumn, it is the evening. As the setting sun draws closer to the mountains, the crows hastily fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos. Even more delightful is the sight of a line of geese flying far overhead. Then, after the sun has set, the crying of insects and the sound of the wind have a charm that goes without saying.

In winter, it is the early morning. Of course it is delightful when snow is falling, but even when there is a pure-white frost -- or in the freezing cold without either snow or frost -- the way the fire is hurriedly stirred up and coals carried to all the rooms seems most suited to the season. As the day wears on and the cold gradually loses its sharpness, the braziers go untended and the coals become coated with a disagreeable white ash.

Exsample of lists:

Things that are distant though near.

  • Festivals celebrated near the Palace.
  • Relations between brothers, sisters and other members of a family who do not love each other.
  • The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama.
  • The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First.

Things that are near though distant
  • Paradise.
  • The course of a boat.
  • Relations between a man and a woman.

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