Sei Shōnagon

Sei Shōnagon
(fl. 966–1017)
   Sei Shōnagon lived during the early medieval period in the HEIAN dynasty in Japan, an era that witnessed an extraordinary production of literary works. For instance Sei’s contemporaries include MURASAKI SHIKIBU, author of The TALE OF GENJI, the greatest Japanese masterpiece. Sei’s own contributions are waka (native Japanese) poetry and, most significantly, The PILLOW BOOK (Makura no Sōshi). Since custom prevented revealing in public the private given names of women, we do not know her true name. “Sei” derives from the first letter of her family name, and “Shōnagon” refers to her position, a middle rank known for its learning. Her father was a Chinese scholar, and she appears to have been one as well. She married in 983, but little is known about her marriage. About that time she entered the court service of Teishi, a consort of the emperor.When her patron died in 1000, she left court and apparently remarried. The most famous observation about Sei comes from Murasaki Shikibu, her rival at the court of Empress Shōshi: “She thought herself so clever, and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired” (Bowring 1982, 131). It confirms the impression that Sei creates in The Pillow Book of herself as an author who can write in Chinese as well as in Japanese. Though women dominate the canon of Heian Japanese literature, in general it was men who studied and wrote in the official Chinese (a language that has its counterpart in Latin in the medieval West).
   Most of the knowledge and impressions we have of Sei come from the persona she creates for herself in The Pillow Book. The work—and by extension its author—are unique. This original collection of personal observations and memoirs, interspersed with poems, is made up of pieces presumably written at night and placed in the drawers of wooden pillows— hence the name “pillow book.”
   Sei created the genre for The Pillow Book, a genre later called zuihitsu—often translated as “prose miscellany.” Much discussion has centered upon how Sei invented her unique masterpiece. Since it is autobiographical, it shares characteristics of the Heian diary (nikki). Yet it is more than a memoir; it includes 164 lists and poetry. Its textual history is complex. Although Sei focuses upon her life at the court of Empress Teishi and she began the work while at court, she completed it after Teishi’s death and her own subsequent departure from court. Furthermore there is disagreement over the original order Sei imposed upon her text. Sei’s persona and writing style often provide ironic contrasts to major Heian literary conventions. Instead of the Buddhist theme about the tragic ephemeral nature of this world, her work is witty and lighthearted. For instance she tells anecdotes about the empress’s pet cat and dog. Under her list of “hateful things,” she complains of clumsy lovers who stumble as they get out of bed and fumble getting dressed the next morning. Also Sei describes herself as the antithesis of the ideal Heian court lady: She claims that she is unattractive and writes poor poetry. And, as Murasaki’s comment attests, Sei flaunts her Chinese frequently, something proper modest women would never do. But even through careful omission and a light tone, Sei cannot fully disguise the fact that Teishi’s court was in disarray as the emperor Ichijō more and more favored his other wife, Shōshi (Murasaki’s patron). Eventually Teishi died in childbirth, and Sei departed from the court. Little is known about the final years of Sei’s life, but later strict Buddhists claim that she died impoverished and alone, punishment for the “sins” revealed in The Pillow Book. The Pillow Book is recognized as a great masterpiece because of its wit and originality, its clear insights into life in Heian Japan, and its “linguistic purity” (Morris 1971, 13).
   ■ Bowring, Richard, trans.Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
   ■ Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
   ■ Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Translated by Ivan Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
   Barbara Stevenson

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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