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Sei Shōnagon, court lady to Empress Teishi, was born 966 CE during the Heian era. Also known as the author of the Pillow Book because of her accounts, and personal opinions she wrote down while she served the empress. To understand this book we need to understand the culture she grew up in; which was heavily shinto influenced. Shinto is a way of life and debatably a religion, has slightly changed over the years but the core connects remain the same: Tama and Kami. Kami, spirits, are in a sense worshipped / honored in shinto practices. Tama is the power in everything in nature, including us, and some people have more tama than others. Pre-buddhism women were believed to have more Tama than men, because of their ability to give birth; but, buddhism helped promote male dominance in Japan. Therefore by the time Sei was born, she lived in a culture which favored men slightly more than women. With this historical context we are able to analyze Sei’s writings.
First we can look at how she incorporated her love of nature into her writings. Her belief in the tama of nature is extremely evident when she says, “When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of wind and the hum of insects.” Breaking this down, we can first see the power of the wind. She believes that if you listen close enough, it has the power to move hearts. Listen closer and you can also hear the hum of insects, while tiny, also has the power to move hearts. She also uses a lot of imagery to express her feelings toward the tama of nature, “The willows too are most charming at this season, with the buds still inclosed like silkworms in their cocoons.” Normally charming is used to express the looks of another human, but she uses the word to express her feelings of the willow trees. This helps us understand her views of the power that is within nature, and her respect and love for it.
Sei also incorporated Kami into her writings, often referring to people in power. For an example Chief Equerry is a senior official, she views him with a lot of respect. In a similar fashion nature may have a spirit in a waterfall, which she will also view with equal or possibly even more respect than the officer. Which was extremely common in Japanese culture, because of their belief that spirits can be inside the forces of nature; and in some cases they can attract good fortune to the land. While not extremely during Sei’s existence, sometimes farmers would erect temporary shrines to attracts spirits that would bless them with good harvest. The belief of spirits providing good luck and fortune was common in asian culture, and helped facilitate the growth of more shrines dedicated to Kami objects and people.
Sei also talks about things she dislikes in her “Hateful things” writing, for an example: “To envy others and to complain about one’s own lot.” She believes that we should be content with what we own and not see the other side of the fence as greener, rather be happy with what you currently have. She also speaks of hating long stories, “If one does manage to whom out some facts, to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion as if one had known all from the beginning- oh, how hateful!” This is interesting considering she herself is writing about her own experiences, but understandable because she believes in getting to the heart of the story. This shows how opinionated she was, which was slightly unusual because women are normally supposed to portray submissive traits.
In conclusion Pillow Book helps express how Sui felt about the world around her. It shows us the influence of Shinto in her writing, which can be seen when she writes about her love for nature and respect for those in power. She also expresses her opinion on things she dislikes, which was extremely uncommon for women during the time. This recipe of content creates a unique book considering when it was written and by whom it was written by.
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