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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for the author of an ancient & intriguing diary.
** Linger for a trip through Singapore, circa 2015.
** Savor a last ½ cup perusing a short poem about escape.
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On the third day of the Third Month
I like to see the sun shining
bright and calm in the spring sky.
Now is the time
when the peach trees come into bloom…
It is a great pleasure to break off a
long, beautifully flowering branch from a cherrry tree
and to arrange it in a vase.
What a delightful task to perform when
a visitor is seated nearby conversing…
– from The Pillow Book
of Sei Shōnagon
translation by Ivan Morris (1991)
Slice of Cake:
Here’s what we don’t know about Sei Shōnagon:
We don’t know her real name.
Sei is a family name, and refers to her extended family.
Shōnagon is a job title, roughly translated as a ‘lesser counsellor.’1
Except…no one connected to her seems to have had that job.
Her family were mostly middle-ranking courtiers.
Her father worked as local official in a low-paying job.
He was also a famous poet.
(Her grandfather was an even more famous poet.)1
We don’t know her real birthday.
She was most likely born in 966 C.E.
We don’t know which day or month.
(I chose March 3 to celebrate her, since she seemed
to write about Spring quite a lot.)
What we do know
is what she wrote about herself in her one book—
a diary she kept during the ten or so years she
served as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi.
And that’s all we know.
Well, almost all.
She is mentioned, briefly, in the diary of one of her rivals at court:
Sei Shōnagon has a most extraordinary air of
Yet, if we stop to examine
those Chinese writings of hers that
she so presumptuously scatters about the place,
we find they are full of imperfections.
Someone who makes such an
effort to be different from others
is bound to fall in people’s esteem…
She is a gifted woman, to be sure.
Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions
even under the most inappropriate circumstances,
If one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along—
People are bound to regard one as
And how can things turn out well for such a woman?
– Murasaki Shikibu
author of The Tale of Genji1
written in 1021 CE
“Those Chinese writings of hers” that Shikibu mentions are what we now know as
The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a jumbled collection of musings, opinions, court gossip,
long reminiscences, and lists.
Lots and lots of lists.
Rare Things (#47)
Hateful Things (#14)
Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster (#16)
Things Worth Seeing (#121)
Things That Have Lost Their Power (#80)
Some of these lists are only a couple of lines long.
Things That Lose by Being Painted (#74)1
Pinks, cherry blossoms, yellow roses. Men or women who
are praised in romances as being beautiful.
Things That Gain by Being Painted (#75)
Pines. Autumn fields. Mountain villages and paths.
Cranes and deer. A very cold winter scene;
An unspeakably hot summer scene.
Hateful Things (#14) is a very long list. Here is a little of it:
One is in a hurry to leave,
but one’s visitor keeps chattering away.
If it is someone of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying,
‘You must tell me all about it next time’;
but, should it be the sort of visitor whose
presence commands one’s best behaviour,
the situation is hateful indeed.
One finds that a hair has got caught
in the stone on which one is rubbing one’s inkstick,
or again that gravel is lodged in the inkstick,
making a nasty, grating sound.
A man who has
nothing in particular to recommend him
discusses all sorts of subjects at random
as though he knew everything.
To be inquisitive about the most trivial matters
and to resent and abuse people of not telling one,
or, if one does manage to worm out some facts,
to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion
as if one had known all from the beginning—
oh, how hateful!
One is just about to be told some
interesting piece of news when a baby
An admirer has come on a clandestine visit,
but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking…
One has been foolish enough to invite a man
to spend the night in an unsuitable place—
and then he starts snoring.
One has gone to bed and is about to doze off
when a mosquito appears,
announcing himself in a reedy voice.
One can actually feel the wind made by his wings and,
slight though it is,
one finds it hateful to the extreme…
To be clear, Sei Shōnagon is no hero.
And not because she is, as Murasaki Shikibu wrote, presumptuous, inappropriate, frivolous, and has to sample each interesting thing that comes along.
All that’s why we like her!
No, what’s painful is the unapologetic cruelty she shows to the most vulnerable. A man comes to the palace begging for help after a devastating fire and she gleefully tells of how they refuse and mock him. (#168)
So not perfect, and not a role model.
And yet, given the distance of time (1000 years!) and culture (an Empress’ court), what I mostly gain from reading Sei Shōnagon is wonder at the human durability of perception, wit, and joy in nature’s beauty.
Here’s one of my favorite of Sei Shōnagon’s lists:
Things That Have Lost Their Power (#80)
A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide.
A woman who has take off her false locks
to comb the short hair that remains.
A large tree that has been blown down in a gale
and lies on its side with its roots in the air.
The retreating figure of a sumō wrestler
who has been defeated in a match.
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.
An old man who removes his hat,
uncovering his scanty top-knot.
A woman, who is angry
with her husband about some trifling matter,
leaves home and goes somewhere to hide.
She is certain
that he will rush about looking for he;
but he does nothing of the kind
and shows the most infuriating indifference.
Since she cannot stay away for ever,
she swallows her pride and returns.
Happy 1024th Birthday
** Sei Shōnagon **
– born 966,
in Kyoto, Japan
I’ve been thinking this week about the art of escape—
and about art as escape.
Sei Shōnagon used her diary as a way to escape,
to create a bit of privacy in her crowded quarters at court, and
to find an outlet for all the things she perhaps shouldn’t say out loud.
I’ve never yet been to Japan where Sei Shōnagon lived and wrote.
However, I did spend a week in Singapore, a country which—like Japan—was heavily influenced by Chinese culture.
Singapore is colorful, fascinating, and jam-packed.
My first day there I saw a quote on a building and stopped to write it down.
Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
Later I found out that it wasn’t a Singaporean who said it,
but American choreographer Twyla Tharp!
Nevertheless, the idea of escape felt very appropriate for crowded Singapore.
As I walked around, I saw various ways that people there found to escape, even if only for a few moments, and gain for themselves a measure of serenity (if not solitude) within that urban city-state.
I found lovely, tree-lined walkways away from the sidewalks, which had small areas set aside—places to pause for a few moments in meditation or relaxation, surrounded by greenery and flowers.
There are also large nature preserves within Singapore, as well as on the near-by island of Pulau Ubin. Walking there is a wonderful escape from urban noise and crowds.
And there is abundant art.
Singapore’s School of the Arts was right near my hotel.
I love the colorful quotes on the steps up to the college.
Theatre is where
the words of dead white men and live brown women
switch on our multi-coloured potential.
– Ovidia Yu
Ovidia Yu is one of the best known writers in Singapore.
Similar to New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh, she’s known for both theater and murder mystery novels.
The titles of her plays are terrifically evocative:
Six Lonely Oysters (1994)
Three Fat Virgins (1992)
Three Fat Virgins Unassembled (1995)
Viva Viagra (1999)
Hitting (on) Women (2007)
I picked up a book called Ayam Curtain,
edited by JY Neon Yang & Joyce Chng.2
It’s a wonder-filled collection of Singaporean speculative fiction.
(This may have been my first time hearing the term ‘speculative fiction.’)
The editors encouraged the writers to imagine alternative versions of Singapore, and to give
‘brief glimpses of their visions of what this country could be or might have been.’
Here are a few excerpts from Ayam Curtain :
At the edge of the ocean,
as far as the human eye can see, the sun rises.
…Yellow and pellucid blue shimmers
across the mosaic tiles where I lie alone…
I wait, staring at the golden ripples
sparkling through the glazed windows
with their motif of feathers and rain,
as the sun rises and the light shifts,
as the sound of the waves lulls me into a
false sense of stability…
– from Halcyon Days
by Yuen Xiang Hao
Life here is orderly and efficient.
Like the bus lines that clearly mark
where you are supposed to stand.
The chaos of the urban jungle
is organized into minute schedules that
distinctively define who you are
and where you stand…
– from Dayuhans
by Nicholas Deroose
What do birds dream of, in cages and in coops,
their little avian brains
winging to places their bodies cannot?
– from the Prologue
by JY Neon Yang & Joyce Chng
The melody continues,
whispering of times long past,
or far to come.
There, hearts are lighter and minds are freer.
There, the drizzling rain bathes the birds
and the breeze whistles through the trees.
There, the Chinese proverb
“the birds converse among the flowers’ aroma”
From that moment on,
I knew with certainty that the birds
share the thoughts of the trees
and the trees share the language of the birds…
– from Woodwind
by Clara Yeo Zhe Xuan
‘O, there’s all kinds of speculation,’
Aunt Tri, an owl, blinks.
‘Is it an ancestor? A prankster? God?
A glitch? A glee club?
Everyone comes across the Aviator at some point
…but it usually takes a while before you get asked to fly.’
Mega, remembering sky,
takes sips from a mug of Earl Grey…
The meadow is tuned to sunset.
Red clouds drift across a low horizon.
‘What do you think I should do,’
asks Mega, her dreadlocks blue.
‘Well you already know about flying…
I think you might as well keep looking.’
‘For the Aviator?’
Mega twirls her purple braids into gold.
‘For the right questions,’ Aunt Tri smiles…
‘For a reason to keep asking them.’
sudden doves wing their way
across an endless sky.
– from A Better Place
by Alvin Pang
“Half Cup More”
Here’s a poem I wrote about a young artist
who escapes as best she can.
On the Sly
Yet a child, yet a poet,
Charged with paper and ink,
sits herself on the floor
beside the bathroom sink.
Only here, only late at night,
is there light, a lock, and
to let a
I read that not only is The Pillow Book regularly taught in Japanese schools—
but that it’s so beloved a work that most Japanese people can
recite the opening lines by heart3…
it is the dawn that is most beautiful.
As the light creeps over the hills,
their outlines are dyed a fading red
and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights.
Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too,
as the fireflies flit to and fro,
and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In autumn the evenings,
when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills
and the crow fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos.
More charming still is a file of wild geese,
like specks in the distant sky.
When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved
by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
In winter the early mornings.
It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night,
but splendid too when the ground is white with frost;
or even when there is no snow or frost, but is is simply
very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room
stirring up the fires…
As noon approaches and the cold wears off,
no one bothers to keep the braziers alight,
and soon nothing remains but
piles of white ashes.
– from The Pillow Book
of Sei Shōnagon
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you. .
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
All quotes by Sei Shōnagon
are translations by Ivan Morris
in The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon
first copyright 1967, reissued in 1991.
For information about her life
I relied heavily on Ivan Morris’
introduction to the same.
edited by June Yang & Joyce Chng
Math Paper Press 2015
Now known as JY Neon Yang,
read more about them at
from a blog by Friederike Boerner
“The Pillow Book—classical literature which will not bore you“
Feb 2, 2017
What Koi Know
a haiku by me.
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2023