Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sei Shonagon and Pillow Books

A Japanese "pillow book" is a collection of observations, notes and lists, which paint a picture of someone's life at a particular moment. It first became popular during the Heian period of Japan (from about 794-1192 AD) when the women of the court jotted down their thoughts at the spur of the moment. They used scraps of paper under their pillows, hence the name "pillow book". Some of the books were used in romantic rendezvous, rather like the Indian Kama Sutra, but not all of them were so explicit in their content.

A Heian courtesan named Sei Shonagon penned the most famous Pillow Book. No one knows her exact identity, but her observations span a period of ten years. They include anecdotes about the court, her personal opinions, and one hundred and sixty four lists. Some of those lists have mundane titles like "Distressing Things" and "Elegant Things", but they reveal details about Sei and the day-to-day doings of her contemporaries.

Sei's final entry in her book is as follows:

"I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid: my notes are full of poems and observations on trees, plants, birds and insects. I was sure that when people saw my books they would say, 'It's even worse than I expected. Now one can tell what she's really like." After all, it is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they come to me." (as quoted from A Collection of Beauties at their Height of their Popularity by Whitney Otto)

She wrote to please herself, not the critics and included what she thought was important at the time. This form of writing is called "zuihitsu" or "following the brush", since the writers simply take down what inspires them at that particular moment. A form of free-write, so to speak.

Unfortunately, Sei's final fate is unknown. Her empress, Teishi, was banished from the court by Teishi's uncle, and Sei was forced to leave with her mistress. Teishi later died in childbirth, but there is no other record of Sei's life after that.

Yet her Pillow Book remains as a historical document as well as valuable insight into the mind of a Japanese courtesan from over a thousand years in the past. Her words remain.

All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2010

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