elegance and beauty in ancient japan

From my bookshelves: The Pillow Book (Makura no soshi) by Sei Shonagon (Penguin Books, London: 2006).

As a creative writer I am more comfortable writing non-fiction rather than fiction, and as a reader I find myself drawn to CNF books such as memoirs and biographies. In order to study the genre I’ve built up a collection of representative works, and this one is among my favorites.

Written by Sei Shonagon, one of the most lettered women of her time, the book reveals the mannered, elegant world of the court inĀ 11th century Japan during the Heian period.

Shonagon was a woman of delicate taste and deep aesthetic sensibilty; the sight of an autumn leaf would send her into paroxysms of rapture. What set her apart from others of equally sensitive nature was her intelligence and immense writing talent, that allowed her to set down her thoughts into a work that is regarded as one of the gems of world literature.

The Pillow Book is written in diary format, but contrary to the popular definition of ‘diary’ as a private exercise to be seen only by the writer, Shonagon knew from the start, after she was given the gift of paper (see excerpt image above) that it would be seen by the public.

She was one of the stars of Queen Teishi’s court, invited to join it for the high esteem people gave her learning, wit, and talent as a poet. Teishi had assigned Shonagon to come up with a work that would show the accomplishments of her court, as opposed to the second consort Queen Akiko’s, which boasted another highly regarded writer, Murasaki Shikibu (author of the Tale of Genji).

Much of The Pillow Book is in the form of lists:

[84] Things of elegant beauty – A slim, handsome young gentleman of noble birth wearing court dress.
A pretty girl dressed somewhat casually…
A bound book of fine paper.
A letter on fine green paper, tied to sprig of willow covered in little leaf buds.
A three-layer fan. A five-layer fan is too thick, and the base looks ugly.
Long stems of sweet flag, laid elegantly on a cypress-bark roof that’s neither too new nor too old, are wonderfully fresh and green to the eye…
A charming cat with a white tag on her red collar walking along by the railing of the veranda beyond the blinds, trailing her long leash behind her, is also a lovely and very elegant sight…
A knotted letter of violet paper, with a long cluster of wisteria blossom attached…

[143] Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety – Watching a horse-race. Twisting up a paper hair-binding cord…
Your heart naturally lurches when you hear the voice of your secret lover in an unexpected place, but the same thing happens even when you hear someone else talking about him. It also lurches when someone you really detest arrives for a visit.
Indeed the heart is a creature amazingly prone to lurching. It even lurches in sympathy with another woman when the next-morning letter from a man who stayed with her for the first time the night before is late in arriving.

[160] Things that are far yet near – Paradise. The course of a boat. Relations between men and women.

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