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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Heian lady's view of men

When I first published this piece, I simply said:
Sometimes it's wise just to include something entirely without comment. Make of it what you will!
I now look at this and wonder if I was giving the impression that I was mocking, or jeering at this period of Japanese society and history or at Sei Shonagon.

 Nothing could be further from the truth. This is just a window into a remarkable courtly period in Japan where 'the rule of taste' prevailed above all others, and is probably not all that much different in some respects from its parallel in Eighteenth Century Europe.

 Perhaps I didn't need to preempt such a criticism, but decades of teaching Japanese cultural history I wouldn't want misunderstood.

From Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book (Penguin Classics) More information on this Eleventh Century Japanese court lady.


  1. She's not really so observant of human behaviour. She clearly hasn't heard of the 'je ne sais quoi' factor so important in relationships.

    As for 'pretty', hmmph, not very 'liberated' is she! Is a man only attractive because he's 'handsome'? Definitely not!!

    However, I can never get enough of Sei Shonagon:) though short bursts do work best!

    Julie xx

  2. 'There's nowt as queer as folk.'

    'All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art passing strange.'

    That just about sums up my very limited understanding of the human race. As beings molded by genetics and modified by interpretation of personal experience, our likes and dislikes can be inexplicable to others, and are certainly not subject to some universal standards of beauty or desirability.

  3. I'm fairly sure that quite often she's speaking tongue-in-cheek - not that there's not a 'true words are often spoken in jest' factor, but there are examples in other sections where she admits that she's being facetious. In the Heian world, if you didn't do things exactly as dictated by taste, then it said all sorts of other things about character as well, so equating beauty with truth in the Keatsian sense was all you needed to make judgments.

    Oh well, the formation of the samurai class was just around the corner in Japanese history....

  4. Oh that's true. And I hadn't considered 'tongue in cheek' factor (she admitted, weeping endearingly). Words out of context too - of course social mores were very different than in our era and culture, I had got that bit!


  5. Perhaps not entirely tongue-in-cheek. In The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki describes a meeting between Genji and a woman. Genji laments the fate of this poor woman, who surely will never have a suitor because, goddess forbid, the tip of her nose is red. A fate worse than death.

  6. Definitely not entirely tongue-in-cheek.(I'm wondering whether or not a Heian lady would physically do something so vulgar.) There's an even greater waspishness about Murasaki than Sei Shonagon, and there are a few quite ugly incidents in Genji, as I recall.

  7. One has to remember that we are dealing with a period of High Culture in which refinement was prized beyond everything - in art, food, clothing, appearance, manners, social mores. Sei Shonagon and Murasaki both come across as rather precious, and the former is certainly judgmental, but they are merely reflecting the world in which they lived. The rarified court atmosphere in which they lived and played is typical of High Culture in every place and age, where an increasing emphasis on etiquette seems to take the place of the robust humanity of that culture's earlier stages. You can find a certain parallel with British High Society in the mid 18th century - viz. the letters of Lord Chesterfield. Dunno about Murasaki (and I would have loathed the Shining Prince) but with some of her comments Sei Shonagon comes across as my kind of girl!

  8. Well put, Julie. Because I agree with it, it must be right! ✔


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