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.

There are a few unpleasant characteristics in Sei Shonagon, things we can't understand today, such as snobbery and pettishness, because they seem to conflict with the wonderfully touching, sensitive character that emerges from so much of her writing.
It was a clear, moonlit night a little after the tenth of the Eighth Month. Her Majesty, who was residing in the Empress's Office, sat by the edge of the veranda while Ukon no Naishi played the flute for her. The other ladies in attendance sat together, talking and laughing, but I stayed by myself, leaning against one of the pillars between the main hall and the veranda.

'Why so silent?' said Her Majesty. 'Say something. It is sad when you do not speak.'

'I am gazing into the autumn moon,' I replied.

'Ah yes,' she remarked. 'That is just what you should have said.'

Sei Shonagon was devoted to her imperial mistress, but here you feel she loved silence and the moon far more.

Japanese ladies were expected to write poetry in pure Japanese, and were not supposed to know Chinese, which the men used liberally, as with Latin in Europe. Sei Shonagon did write exquisite and pure Japanese, but was proficient in Chinese. It is another of her charms that she can banter with the men as an equal. She understands the classical allusions and replies in kind.

It seems she was rather free with her sexual favours. It gives her a liberated feel to us reading now. In the Heian court it was perhaps another thing that made her a bit of an outsider, and disapproved of. But it was still within the mores of the period, and she wrote of her lovers.

She numbered three things that are near though distant: paradise; the course of a boat; relations between men and women.

She analyses forms of etiquette between lovers: such as the devotion of one who, on arriving home after spending a night with his beloved, carefully writes her a poem. She imagines the colours of their clothes and the silky bloom of them, the delightful disarray of their hair, the dew on the morning glory. There is no line between analysis, description, musing, short story. She loves having lovers in the moonlight, and stirring in those last moments before dawn. A gong from a temple, the cries of birds. Amid their own murmuring they share those muffled sounds outside.

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

Translations by Ivan Morris, in Penguin.

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