Lists of a Lady-in-Waiting
of the author of The Pillow Book
A thousand years
ago a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court at Heian Kyo (modern-day
Kyoto) dipped her brush into the well of her inkstone and watched the
bristles swell with ink. She lowered the brush onto the paper spread
in front of her and moved her hand rapidly:
Haru wa akebono
. . . In spring, the dawn. The sky, dyed in morning light, slowly brightens
and purple clouds stretch across the mountains. . . .
She guided the brush
up and down the page:
Natsu wa yoru
. . . In summer, the night. I need not write of the nights lit by
the moon, but of the moonless nights, the fireflies' lights crossing
in the darkness. . . .
A bristle worked
itself loose. She perched it onto the left edge of the inkstone and
Aki wa yugure.
. . In autumn, the evening. The setting sun burnishes the edges of the
mountains and the birds fly home. . . . A trembling line of wild geese
flies into the distance and disappears. . . .
"Shonagon," a voice
called. She lifted her hand and looked toward the corridor. After she
glanced at what she had written, she laid her brush lengthwise on the
inkstone. When she stood up the brush shifted slightly, so she bent
down and gently tapped it. Satisfied that the barrel of the brush was
aligned with the inkstone's left edge, she left the room.
This is the beginning
of The Pillow Book, a pastiche of idiosyncratic lists, diary
entries, and reminiscences— one of Japan's earliest prose masterpieces.
Its author, Sei Shonagon, probably wrote this in 1000, the same year
a scribe in England scratched runes into a manuscript of Beowulf.
Shonagon imbued these opening lines with mono
no awaré: beauty is precious because it is brief. Mono no awaré,
the heritage of the Heian Period (794-1192), became a uniquely Japanese
aesthetic. A preference for, Joseph Campbell writes, "the unsymmetrical
[that] suggests movement; the purposely unfinished [that] leaves a vacuum
into which the imagination of the beholder can pour." In The Pillow
Book's opening lines, Shonagon puts things in motion to remind us
they will not last: the clouds stretch only to disappear; the fireflies'
paths do not meet again; the geese fly into the setting sun and darkness
descends. Her sentences don't end so much as they scatter, like cherry
blossoms tugged off branches in the wind — a favorite simile of writers
at the time — mono no awaré.
But frankly, mono no awaré was pop culture during
the Heian period. Shonagon's contemporary, Murasaki Shikibu, uses the
word awaré over a thousand times in The Tale of Genji (granted,
it's a long novel) and, while the Japanese pride themselves on their
ability to quote the beginning of The Pillow Book in Heian Japanese
(they have to memorize it in junior high), few Japanese have read the
book far enough to know that Shonagon does something else within its
pages that reminds us all of our humanity, regardless of our time, culture,
She complains. She gloats. She finds fault with others.
And when she does, the millennium separating her from us vanishes: "Just
as a woman is about to tell me something really interesting," she writes
in her list of Things That Irritate Me, "and I'm sitting there just
dying to hear it, her baby starts crying." "I know I shouldn't think
this way, and I know I'll be punished for it," she writes in her list
of Things That Make Me Happy, "but I just love it when bad things happen
to people I can't stand." "Ugly people," she starts off her list of
Things That Don't Have Any Redeeming Qualities, "with disagreeable personalities."
The Pillow Book ends in tragedy. Teishi, the
young empress whom Shonagon serves, gets in the way of her uncle, the
ambitious Fujiwara Michinaga. Michinaga's insatiable desire for power
drives him to break the "one emperor-one empress" tradition that weathered
the reigns of sixty-six monarchs. He forces the emperor to recognize
a second empress, Michinaga's eleven-year-old daughter. Teishi, at twenty-four,
pregnant with the child of the emperor who abandons her, her father
dead and her brother powerless to help, faces Michinaga alone. When
it's over, Shonagon leaves the court and disappears.
I stand on the gravel
grounds of the Buddhist temple at Sennyuji, eyes narrowed against the
sun's glare. Bunched sticks of incense smolder in front of the temple.
Even though it is late September, I have to shift my weight from one
leg to another to keep the heat from pushing through the soles of my
shoes. Twisted spires of smoke slowly unravel in the humid air.
The city of Kyoto erected a monument to Shonagon
here: a large rock with one of her poems, a tanka, inscribed
in its side. Legend has it that Shonagon came here after Michinaga triumphed.
I believe it: Shonagon's father's house was here (he died in 990), and
Teishi's grave is a ten-minute walk away. Shonagon loved Teishi. I can
see her walking up that hill to tend to her empress's grave.
Shonagon's grave may be here also. Nobody knows.
Nobody knows her name either. "Shonagon" was an imperial rank,
"minor counselor." Someone later added the name "Sei," which refers
to her father's name, to distinguish her from the other shonagons in
her world. The only things we know for sure about her are what she wrote
in The Pillow Book.
The characters etched in this rock, though, explain
how a nameless woman could write one of her country's first prose classics.
In Shonagon's time, a tanka was a thirty-one syllable verse form arranged
in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. "Poetry," Shelley writes, "lifts the veil from
the hidden beauty of the world." This wasn't a metaphor in Heian culture.
The Heian noblewoman lived behind a kicho, a moveable frame large
enough to conceal her; curtains hung from its top rail. (The best place
for the kicho, Shonagon writes, is near the veranda, where she can hear
the world file past the curtains blocking her view.) Since the Heian
noblewoman wasn't allowed to show herself and, until marriage, was forbidden
to speak with men outside the family, the only way Heian aristocrats
could pine for each other was through tanka. Servants, clutching poems
penned in their master's and mistress's hands, scurried back and forth
among the aristocrats' mansions, shouting, presumably, "You've got tanka!"
Shonagon writes The Pillow Book in the
same characters lovers wrote their tanka in, hiragana. Hiragana
was Japanese, a derivative of kanji, the intricate characters
of the greatest civilization on earth, Tang Dynasty China. Easily written
with a flick of the brush, hiragana and the brief tanka clicked — mono
Heian noblemen sniffed at hiragana, though. They
called it onnade, the women's hand. Good for poetry and love
letters, maybe; but for the Heian man to write "something serious" in
hiragana was as unseemly, notes Arthur Waley (Shonagon's earliest translator
into English), "as a [modern-day] London clubman [walking] down Bond
Street in skirts." Everybody knew that real men wrote the real literature
in Chinese, in kanji. Men discouraged women from learning Chinese characters;
it just wasn't feminine. So, when women lifted their writing brushes,
they wrote in hiragana.
And so Shonagon writes The Pillow Book in
Japanese, the women's hand. "Never intending," she writes on its final
page, "these notes to be seen, I simply wrote to while away those long
hours when I had nothing better to do."
"When I first went
into waiting I was dreadfully embarrassed. I had no idea what to do
and felt so helpless I was always on the verge of tears. I was so self-conscious
that when I attended Her Majesty I cowered behind my kicho. One night
Her Majesty brought out some pictures to show me, but I couldn't bring
myself to take them. I was too embarrassed to show my hands beneath
the curtains. . . ."
Shonagon, married and divorced before she is twenty-five,
has three choices: find another man, enter a Buddhist convent, or serve
When Shonagon arrives at the palace, Teishi, fourteen,
is an imperial consort, a concubine. Teishi's future husband, the emperor,
is ten. Teishi was born to be empress. Her father, the imperial regent
Fujiwara Michitaka, like generations of Fujiwara before him, depends
on his daughter to control the emperor and the power of the throne.
The emperor reigns, but the Fujiwara regent rules. For every emperor
a Fujiwara daughter is born or, like Teishi, is already waiting. She
becomes empress and gives birth to the next emperor, who is raised in
a Fujiwara mansion. And so it goes: the regent "advises" the emperor.
If the emperor is recalcitrant, the regent asks his sister, the emperor's
mother, for help.
When Teishi's father dies her position becomes
precarious. Michinaga wants to shift power to his side of the family.
His daughter must become empress.
Shonagon doesn't write of these things, however.
She, and the other women Teishi selected for her coterie, do what aristocrats
did to pass the time. They write tanka, go on excursions and pilgrimages
(more for something to do than spiritual advancement), and take lovers.
Shonagon writes extensively about her affairs.
These boudoir scenes, though, disappoint that reader who, titillated
by The Pillow Book's title, hopes to find thousand-year-old erotica.
(The most sensuous passage I found describes a solitary autumn afternoon:
"I love to slide a silk robe over my face and take a nap," she writes,
"breathing through the filmy scent of sweat.") Few of Shonagon's lovers
please her, though, and most find themselves included in her list of
Things That Irritate Me. They snore, and stumble around in the darkness
the morning after, looking for the Heian equivalent of their car keys.
The Pillow Book's title comes from the
Heian aristocrats' habit of keeping notepaper near their pillows, makura.
Since Shonagon calls her work in progress soshi, "random notes,"
the Japanese refer to her collected essays as Makura no Soshi
(Random Notes of the Pillow), a title she probably never used herself.
The Empress Teishi, from their first meeting,
shows a special affection for the older, and vastly more experienced,
Shonagon. Throughout The Pillow Book Teishi gently chides Shonagon
for her excesses and, while Shonagon never admits it, the reader readily
sees that Shonagon aspires to be like Teishi: considerate, delicate,
gentle. Teishi becomes the center of Shonagon's life for the next ten
years, the only person to whom Shonagon shows tenderness. Shonagon writes
as if her empress were ethereal: "My eyes were opened to a beauty I
didnít know existed in this world." Teishi may well have been divine,
Shonagonís acerbic brush wouldn't have spared her if she weren't, and
the portrait Shonagon draws of her fragile empress makes Teishi's tragedy
all the more poignant.
A tragedy that reaches out for, but does not
engulf, Shonagon. While what became of Shonagon remains a mystery, the
pages she leaves behind indicate a personality bent on survival: "When
I come into the room to serve Her Majesty and see the other women have
already crowded around her, I sit next to a column apart from them.
Her Majesty sees me and calls. I love it when the others make way for
me when I go to sit next to her."
Shinto shrines are
fronted by at least one torii gate: a curved top beam, tips straining
toward the sky, atop a cross-beam held aloft by two inwardly slanting
columns. The main shrine at Fushimi Inari has thousands — lined up one
after another, all bright vermilion, straddling the paths that wind
up the mountain to the smaller shrines on its peak. With the sun high
in the sky, the torii glow as if they were just forged, riven of their
casts, and left fuming on the sides of this mountain.
Shonagon came here on a pilgrimage. In her
list, People That I Envy, she relates an incident that occurred close
to the spot where I stand now:
Though I started at dawn, by mid-morning the heat was rising and I was
only halfway up. I was hot, tired, and felt thoroughly sorry for myself.
Why should I go through all this trouble, I thought, when plenty of
people donít go on pilgrimages at all? I sat down and felt so frustrated
I actually started to cry. Just then a woman, who looked about thirty
or so, came down from the upper shrine. "I'm going up seven times today,"
she said to the people on the path. "This is my third time; shouldnít
have any trouble with the last four. Probably be down the mountain by
two o'clock." . . . How I wished I could be a woman like her!
How glad I am
she wasn't. Shonagon writes 164 lists. Many are just that: lists of nouns,
without commentary. The short ones move like e.e. cummings poems — Things
That Pass by Rapidly: "A boat under full sail. Age. Spring. Summer. Fall.
Winter." The titles alone are worth the price of admission. Things That
were Good in the Past But are Useless Now ("a dead pine tree smothered
in wisteria"; "a man, amorous in youth, enfeebled by age"); Things That
Look Hot and Uncomfortable ('fat people with hair plastered on their foreheads";
"a coppersmith at his forge during the summer"); Scruffy Things ("the
back side of a piece of embroidery"; "the inside of a cat's ear"); Things
That are the Reverse of the Other ("summer and winter"; "the feeling I
have seeing a man I once loved but now don't"); Things That are Especially
Rare ("A father-in-law who praises his son-in-law"); Things That Make
Me Happy ("I'm delighted when I find that, after putting the scraps together,
I can read a letter someone threw away.").
Shonagon likes things to be a certain way. Young people,
babies, and high-ranking government officials should be chubby; if they
are not, they look "nervous." "A priest should be handsome," she asserts,
"to make the worthiness of his sermon easily appreciable." An unattractive
priest may, by her reasoning, cause his congregation to sin.
She has her prejudices. The nightingale's song, she
writes in her list, Birds, is celebrated in verse, as well it should be;
but even when nightingales flit from tree to tree in the palace grounds
they do not sing, and this is "dreadfully boring." "Yet," she writes,
"when I leave the palace and travel through 'that part of town' I see
them perched on the branches of the most nondescript plum trees warbling
away among the commonest of houses." Similarly, in her list, Things That
Don't Suit One Another, she notes that nothing goes better with rooftops,
cloaked in freshly fallen snow, than pale blue moonlight; when this effect
is reproduced on the rooftops of the "commoners" houses," though, it is
She writes in a style the Japanese call zuihitsu,
"the brush moving with the mind." The result is often tangled threads
of thought— the droll competing with the tragic. "Dogs that howl in the
daytime" heads off her list of Things That Depress Me, followed by "people
who wear clothing out of season." Then, starkly, "a room prepared for
childbirth in which the baby died" precedes "a charcoal brazier [used
to heat the drafty rooms] in which coals won't catch fire." She follows
that with "carriage drivers who beat their oxen," before she frowns at
a professor's wife "who gives birth to girl after girl," as if the hapless
mother doesn't know that a woman can never aspire to a position in academia.
The way she describes these things, and where
she starts and stops, is delightful. The ox she evokes in her list of
Things That Can be Seen Comfortably is not remarkable in its final appearance,
but in the fluid order she summons its oxen characteristics to the tip
of her brush, as if she is squeezing the ideal ox head-first out of a
tube, and its damp tail just flicked out: "An ox should have a small forehead,"
she writes, "tinged with white hair. Its lower belly, the tips of its
legs, and the point of its tail should also be white."
Many lists read as if she took up her brush one
morning a thousand years ago, but just laid it down — the ink still glistening
on the page. Things That Make Me Fondly Recall the Past: "Dried hollyhock
leaves from the Kamo festival. Dolls I played with as a child. . . . On
a rainy day with nothing better to do I go through old things — I find
a love letter that years ago moved me deeply. Last year's fan. A night
bathed in moonlight. . . ."
We feel a nagging deja vu, as if she wrote
the stuff of our own memories. Lovely Things: "A baby thumps across the
floor on her hands and knees — something tiny catches her eye. She charges
over to it and picks it up, marveling at her find. Then she shows it to
each adult in the room, her expression asking them to share in her wonder."
And the lists where her brush moves into art.
Looking out from her gissha, an ox-drawn carriage, as it lumbers
across a river under a full moon, "the ox's hooves break the surface,
the water shatters like crystal." On a summer excursion, in the close
air of her gissha ("watching the lotuses floating in the pond," she writes,
"was my only relief from the heat"), she watches noblemen move from a
mansion's dark interior to its wide, sunlit veranda. Their linen robes,
somber in the shade, catch the light — gauzy purples layered on yellows,
whites, and pale grays. Against these colors the noblemen open their red
paper fans "like a field of pinks coming into bloom."
She invariably ends these reveries with her trademark, an insistence
that the reader understand who wields her brush: "Early dawn in the palace
garden after a night of rain. The dew on the chrysanthemums sparkles in
the morning light. Beads of water cling to rain-tattered spider webs like
pearls poised on strands of silk. The sun rises, and the hagi's
slender branches, trembling under the weight of the dew, suddenly spring
up — mist flashes in the light. I've asked, but none of the other women
finds this remarkable. Knowing it is something only I enjoy makes it all
the more delightful."
I walk out the main
building at the mountain temple of Hasedera onto a veranda that overhangs
a steep slope, bristling with cedars. It is late afternoon, and when
I lean on the railing the wood is cool under my forearms. A lone cicada
whines somewhere far below. I look down into the narrow valley. A small
village hugs the banks of a listless creek that, when Shonagon came
here, was a swollen river. She wrote of the terror she felt working
her way up this slope, gripping the rails of a log staircase, the roar
of the water in her ears. Other nameless women authors (all ladies-in-waiting)
came here too. Murasaki Shikibu served in the court of Michinaga's daughter,
the child who took Teishi's place. Murasaki writes The Tale of Genji
(the world's first "modern novel") in onnadé. "The daughter of Takasue,"
as she is known, describes the trip to Hasedera from Kyoto in her Sarashina
Diary: day after day swaying in her gissha, fearful of bandits.
She also writes in onnadé. Like The Pillow Book, these books
are still in print a millennium later. It takes a while for Japanese
men to catch up. They write in Chinese, in kanji, for another two centuries.
The logs are gone now. The stone staircase
leading down to the main gate was first built in 1039, years after Shonagon
is believed to have died. Still, the ridges across the valley haven't
changed in these thousand years, and the forest that covers the valley
floor hides most of the village. A wind comes down the mountain and
sighs through the cedars, the sound of a river heard faraway. Behind
my closed eyes I hear four gissha crunch over the stones to the riverbank
below. The attendants reach for the harnesses as the oxen, smelling
the water, bellow and strain at their traces, hooves digging holes in
the gravel. Shonagon gets out first, of course. She walks away from
the river and stretches. Her companions call to her (bring friends on
long pilgrimages, Shonagon advises; otherwise, conversation is limited
to servants), their voices barely audible over the sound of the rushing
water. Shonagon turns, smiles, and looks up at the temple. A cloud moves
away from the sun and she shields her eyes, the white of her hand flashes
against the deep blue shadows under the trees.
Teishi's father dies in 995. Another of her
uncles becomes regent, but dies a week later. In 996, Teishi's older
brother, the regent-apparent, is implicated in a plot contrived by Michinaga
and banished. That same year Teishi gives birth to a girl. Three years
later, the year Teishi gives the emperor a son, Michinaga's daughter,
Shoshi, comes to court as a concubine. Michinaga whispers to his sister,
the emperor's mother. The emperor reluctantly agrees. Shoshi becomes
the second empress in 1000. Teishi, heavy with child, is moved out of
the palace. She dies in childbirth. The baby, a girl, lives. Shonagon
vanishes. Perhaps she returns to her father's house. Teishi will be
laid to rest nearby. The Buddhist temple Sennyuji stands there now.
The great Michinaga came to Hasedera in 1024.
He must have struggled up the log staircase. I like to think he tripped,
maybe barked his shins.
A thousand years
ago Shonagon came back to her room and knelt at her table. She rolled
the tip of her brush in the inkstone until the ink bled through the
bristles. Then she wrote:
Fuyu wa tsutomete
. . . In winter, the early morning . . . waking to see everything
glazed in frost. . . . Servants hustle from room to room, bringing coal
and stirring up the drowsy embers in the braziers.
She lifted her brush
and dabbed at a bristle that had dried on the inkstone's left edge.
The bristle didn't budge. She ignored it, and brought the tip of her
brush down to the paper. "But it gets warmer as the sun rises in the
sky," she wrote, glancing at the stubborn bristle, "and the servants
stop tending the braziers. The ashes snuff out the last of the embers,
and this is dreadfully boring."
Greer, an American who has lived in Japan since 1982, is an associate
professor of English at Tosa Women's Junior College in Kochi City, Kochi
Prefecture (on Shikoku). Mr Greer is currently working on a biography
of Hosokawa Gratia, the Christian wife of the 16th century warlord, Hosokawa
quotes from The Pillow Book in this essay were translated by
David Greer. Readers interested in Shonagon can find The Pillow Book
of Sei Shonagon (Columbia University Press) translated and editied
by Ivan Morris. In their well-known translations/commentaries, Morris,
Sansom and Waley used Japanese readings of the Chinese characters to
refer to the Empress Teishi as "Sadako" and Michinaga's daughter Shoshi
as "Akiko." The author of this article used the Chinese readings of
these names, following the tradition of Japanese scholars (and Richard
Bowring, in his 1996 translation of Murasaki's diary).
held by the author
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