The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon

I finally got around to reading this diary about courtly life in Heian era (right about the year 1000) Japan. I’ve been meaning to give it a go ever since my friend Becca blogged about it (wow, that was three years ago). Anyway, this one of the best books I’ve ever read. No seriously, after reading this book, I started composing a list of the best books that I have ever read just so I would be able to give the book its due.

The book is composed of three general things: i) lists; ii) moments; and iii) anecdotes.

Many of the lists are quite bizarre. She makes lists of mountains, plains, beaches, flowers, types of dress, etc. But she also makes wonderful lists with titles like: “Annoying things”, “Embarassing things”, “Things that are both annoying and embarassing”. I mean, sure, there are lots of positive lists (“Things whose outcome you long to know”, etc…) but I much preferred the bitchy lists, like the following:

Deeply irritating things – A man who sets off alone in his carriage to see an event such as the Kamo Festival or the purification ceremony that precedes it, something that the men all love to go to. What sort of crassness is this? Surely he should invite along some other young men who’d love the chance to go, even if they aren’t of particularly high birth. There he sits, oblivious, a vague, solitary figure dimly seen behind the blinds of his carriage, gazing intently at the proceedings. How boorishly mean-spirited and horrid, you think at the sight of him.

Rain on the day when you’re to go out for some special event or a temple pilgrimage.

Happening to hear one of the people in your service complaining that you don’t like her, and someone else is your favourite of the moment.

Someone you don’t particularly care for, who jumps to ridiculous conclusions and gets upset about nothing, and generally behaves with irritating self-importance.

Guys, there are so many of these bitchy lists, and I love them so much. They make me wish that me and Sei Shonagon were best friends. I bet half the court loved her and half the court really hated her.

The other great part of the Pillow Book were the one or two paragraph long sections where she’d describe some striking element. My favorite was:

[170]* A place where a lady lives alone, in a badly dilapidated dwelling surrounded by a crumbling earth wall, the garden pond full of water weed, and the courtyard, if not literally overrun with wormwood, at any rate with patches of green weeds showing here and there through the gravel, is a truly forlorn and moving sight. There’s nothing more boringly unromantic than a place where the lady has got down to business and had everything repaired and smartened up, meticulously locks her gate each evening and generally keeps the place run in punctilious fashion.


[182] It’s the middle of a fiercely hot day, and you’re finding it impossible to stay cool – your fan only moves the warm air about, and you keep dipping your hands in ice water and moaning about the heat. And then someone brings you a message written on brilliant red thin paper, attached to a flowering Chinese pink, also bright crimson – and you sense how hot he must have felt as he wrote it, and how much you must mean to him, and find yourself unconsciously laying down the fan (that was anyway proving so useless even when plied while the other hand soaked in ice water), your complaints suddenly forgotten.

It seems rather artistically daring for Shonagon to put so much poetic feeling into the minutiae of her own lifestyle. The other Heian-era work I’ve read, The Tale Of Genji, also takes courtly life as its subject and it also contains many beautiful descriptions, but it doesn’t seem to get really involved with moments–real moments–like this. It’s more about some sort of abstract and highly stylized court life in which Shining Genji swoops in and romances everybody. If Shonagon wrote the Tale of Genji, there’d be alot fewer gently falling cherry blossoms and alot more complaining about how terribly flustering it is to have to think up a poem at a moment’s notice or how deeply irritating it is when someone’s carriage has a squeaky wheel.

Of course, The Pillow Book does have a narrative component, too. Some portion of the anecdotes related in the book are just utterly incomprehensible to me. It sounds like a joke, but most of the anecdotes revolve around composing poems and sending poems and thinking up the right responses for poems. Often, they’re just Shonagon boasting about how wonderful it was that she was able to think up of a perfect poetic response at a moment’s notice. And quite a bit is lost in translation. There are at least two lengthy anecdotes that are about poetic gaffes–a person accidentally saying the wrong thing in a poem–that I found completely incomprehensible, even after perusing the footnotes. Seriously, it was like trying to understand the literature of space aliens.

And alot of the anecdotes are just her talking about how wonderful the woman whom she served (Shonagon was a kind of attendant to the Empress of Japan). It’s kind of hilarious to see her extolling the wisdom and wit of an Empress who’s only like sixteen years old.

But although the anecdotes are not as exquisite as the lists and the moments, they do contain some of the stuffness of life. They give a glimpse of its routines and its rituals. For instance, despite their high station, the women at court seem curiously exposed. They’re not behind stone walls, they’re only kept hidden by these reed or ricepaper blinds. Everything is surrounded by these outdoor pavilions. The indoors and the outdoors seem very commingled. And although there is a kind of gender segregation–women were not supposed to allow men to see their bodies–men are constantly dropping by and talking to the women through the blinds. They’re constantly passing notes and poems to each other. People are coming into and out of their lives, including a few instances where men invade their domiciles, Genji-style. It’s a world with alot of movement. Shonagon seems to be constantly shuttling from place to place–the Empress has to switch palaces every few months, and Shonagon also makes pilgrimage trips and visits and has her own changes in housing. It’s very mannered and very light; Shonagon never even alludes to the notion that the people around her are, like, even marginally involved in ruling a country.

In many ways, it contains all the virtues of modern realist fiction. It’s an intensely detailed portrait of a time and place. It contains short, sharp descriptive passages that are surprisingly moving. Its freedom from plot and chronology allow it to skip around and discuss everything within its world. And it has vividly realized characters. Well, one vividly realized character. Shonagon herself seems utterly delightful. Her voice sings out across a thousand years; even translation is not enough to disguise its uniqueness. Her voice suffuses the book. It’s embedded in her cadences and reversals. Even throwaway phrases are delightful because they come packaged in that voice:

Disconcerting things. An ox cart that’s overturned. You’ve assumed that something of such enormous bulk must of course be thoroughly stable, and you’re simply stunned to see it lying there, and deeply disconcerted.

Spilling something is always very startling and disconcerting.


Cats – Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

It’s a beautiful voice, and it induces an emotion that one does not often get from books. Reading The Pillow Book conjures up a stillness inside the heart. And that’s not a feeling that I’ll soon forget.

(Also, for those who were put off by my review of The Tale Of Genji, I’d like to announce that The Pillow Book is one hundred percent rape-free).

Comments (



  1. Becca

    Oh Sei Shonagon! (Man, I can’t believe it was three years ago I read that either.) I tried composing Shonagon-esque lists for a while, but I just couldn’t do it with anything like her style and wit, and I kept imagining her being fabulously scornful at me in my head.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Haha. Your Pillow Book would be a very different animal from Shonagon’s. And yes, she would have been deeply scornful of it. Unless you were the empress, in which case she’d call it the most genius thing that had ever been written in the whole history of the world.