[This is part of a recurring series on the writings of Sei Shonagon.]
Sei Shonagon (æ¸…å°‘ç´ÂÂÂè¨€), [pronounced Say Show-nah-gone] (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese Empress. While not a princess herself, she certainly had the temperment of one and the sensitivities of a noble. She authored the Pillow Book a "collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court." Sounds like blogging to me.Japanese culture initially was formed and nurtured by the nobles and royal court. To be scholarly and poetic was expected and had it not been so, Japanese culture would be far less rich than it is today as the populace in general was not yet literate to the point of introducing art.
It may seem odd a female is one of the great early contributors of Japanese culture in such a male dominated society, but in its formative times, this was not unusual at all and Sei even had contemporary female rivals in the same pursuits. But to put this time in perspective, we first need a quick review of Japanese history and where her time fits in.
Japanese culture took its initial ideas from China and Korea but was really a fresh start which they morphed all into their own. They created their own creation myth with a set of holy artifacts and a holy emperor granting divinity to the nation through him. But then rebellions flared up in the countryside causing the nobility to recruit those who would serve them in retaining power. These men were called samurai, meaning "to serve".
But a funny thing happened on the way to the court. Eventually the samurai asked themselves, "Why serve them when we can serve ourselves? We are the true power after all!" And so began centuries of power struggles not resolved until 1600 with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, which was dissolved in the 1860s when power was returned once again to the emperor.
Shonagon's time was in the twilight of the age when samurai still served and the nobility held absolute power. After the samurai took power, life was very hard in the royal court as they were completely dependent on outside funding without their ability to tax. But Shonagon knew none of this in the halcyon days of Japanese royalty.
Different Ways of Speaking:
- A priest's language.
- The speech of men and of women.
- The common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words.
- A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
- Duck eggs.
- Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
- A rosary of rock crystals
- Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
- A pretty child eating strawberries.
- A woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.
- Hollyhock worn in frizzled hair.
- Snow on the houses of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.
- A plain wagon on a moonlit night; or a light auburn ox harnessed to such a wagon.
- A woman who, though well past her youth, is pregnant and walks along panting. It is unpleasant to see a woman of a certain age with a young husband; and it is most unsuitable when she becomes jealous of him because he has gone to visit someone else.
- An elderly man who has overslept and who wakes up with a start; or a greybeard munching some acorns that he has plucked. An old woman who eats a plum and, finding it sour, puckers her toothless mouth.
- A woman of the lower classes dressed in a scarlet trouser-skirt. The sight is all too common these days.
- A handsome man with an ugly wife.
- An elderly man with a black beard and a disagreeable expression playing with a little child who has just learnt to talk.
It is most unseemly for an Assistant Captain of the Quiver Bearers to make his night patrol in a hunting costume. And, if he wanders outside the women's quarters, ostentatiously clad in his terrifying red cloak, people will be sure to look down on him. They disapprove of his behaviour and taunt him with remarks like 'Are you searching for someone suspicious?'
A Lieutenant in the Imperial Police who serves as a Chamberlain of the Sixth Rank, and therefore has access to Senior Courtiers' Chamber, is regarded as being splendid beyond words. Country folk and people of the lower orders believe he cannot be a creature of this world: in his presence they tremble with fear and dare not meet his eyes. It is very unsuitable that such a man should slink along the narrow corridors of some Palace building in order to steal into a woman's room.
A man's trouser-skirt hanging over a curtain of state that has been discreetly perfumed with incense. The material of the trouser-skirt is disagreeably heavy; and, even though it may be shining whitely in the lamp-light, there is something unsuitable about it.
An officer who thinks he is very fashionable in his open over-robe and who folds it thinly as a rat's tail before hanging it over the curtain of state - well, such a man is simply unfit for night patrol. Officers on duty should abstain from visiting the women's quarters; the same applies to Chamberlains of the Fifth Rank.
I was standing in a corridor of the Palace with several other women when we noticed some servants passing. We summoned them to us (in what I admit was a rather unladylike fashion) and they turned out to be a group of handsome male attendants and pages carrying attractively wrapped bundles and bags. Trouser-cords protruded from some, and I noticed others contained bows, arrows, shields, halberds, and swords. 'Whom do these belong to?' we asked each of the servants in turn. Some of them knelt down respectfully and replied, 'They belong to Lord So-and-so.' Then they stood up and continued on their way, which was all very nice. But others gave themselves airs, or else were embarrassed and said, 'I don't know', or even went off without replying at all, which I found hateful indeed.