The Lady Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Lady Murasaki Shikibu
, author of The Tale of Genji
. Together, they are the most famous of the authors of the Heian era
, the first period in history in which the writings of women defined, shaped, and led a nation's literature.
Born in Japan in 965, there is little that we know of the details of her life except that she served as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadoko in Heian-kyo.
In Murasaki Shikibu's diary there is a description of Sei:
"Sei Shonagon has the most amazing air of self-satisfaction. Yet if we look at the Chinese verses she litters everywhere, we find they are full of flaws. Someone who tries so hard to be different from others can only fall in people's regard and so I think her future will be hard. Certainly she is a gifted woman. But if one gives free rein to one's feelings even in the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to partake of every interesting thing that passes, people are sure to see you as frivolous. And how could things turn out well for a woman like this?"
Heh. Murasaki and Sei did not care for each other. Both were strong-willed, perceptive, and articulate aristocrats.
Murasaki's talents created the vast epic novel Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji).
Sei's talents were smaller in scale if not in scope. She wrote detailed observations, descriptions, lists of what she liked and didn't, about what moved her. These were gathered in the Makura no Sôshi, (The Pillow Book), a work that is is read even today.
One of her poems appears in the famous collection Hyakunin Isshu, collected by Fujiwara no Teika.
We don't really know how things turned out for Sei. Perhaps Murasaki was right.