The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is a spontaneous, playful diary filled with visual and sensory detail. Most importantly, it’s opinionated, vibrant, and gossipy. She observes and comments on her world in the Japanese Emperor’s court without restraint, sharing her opinions on everything.
There is no way she could have known that her diary would become part of the canon of Japanese literature, and thank goodness for that because otherwise she never would have written about the minor events that make her world so rich and vivid to us, a thousand years later.
Sei Shonagon means Minor Councillor. We don’t know her real name, but we know she was a member of the Kiyohara clan. She was a lady in waiting to the Empress of Japan, and she masterfully played the game of court intrigue. She was a poet, and many of the stories in her diary revolve around exchanges of poetry with other high class court members. But it wasn’t just poetry they were exchanging — poetry was just the vehicle. They were actually moving pieces around the chess board, influence trading, exchanging favours, and especially, they were seducing each other.
The Heian period was a time of great sexual license for upper class women. Taking lovers was not just tolerated, it was expected — even for young women. The seduction ritual included not solely poetry, but the choice of paper the poetry was written on, the style of calligraphy, the ink, the folding of the paper, the choice of flower or branch the paper was wrapped around, and whether or not it was accompanied by a gift. Every detail mattered. Once the two potential lovers actually met, there were other barriers to be passed — not the least of which was the actual wall or screen the woman was hiding behind.
How do we know all this? Because Sei Shonagon wrote about it. It’s delightfully alien and undeniably kinky.
Not only does she tell the tale of all these seductions and dish the dirt on her friends and frenemies, she makes lists — 164 in total. It’s these lists that I love the best. She lists things that she loves, hates, what bugs her, what makes her depressed, what’s attractive and fashionable, what a man should do to be manly, what a woman should do to be womanly, wholesome things, disgusting things… the lists go on and on. Some are poetic: Things That Pass by Rapidly or Things That were Good in the Past But are Useless Now. Some are banal: Things That Look Hot and Uncomfortable or Things That are Squalid. They are all fascinating.
The Pillow Book is basically a personal blog written a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon wrote it for the same reasons people write blogs today — to observe and comment on her world and experiences without restraint, and with no particular expectation that anyone would read it or care what she wrote. But what she gave us was a miracle. She created a window into her world that is so lifelike and detailed that we can almost step through and commit the time travel we all yearn for.