Sei Shōnagon (清少納言)

Sei Shōnagon (清少納言, c. 966–1017/1025) was a Japanese author and a court lady during the middle Heian period.

She was born in a family of middle-ranking courtiers, and was the daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, a scholar and well-known waka poet, who worked as a provincial official. When Shōnagon was sixteen years old, she married a government official, and the couple had a son. Around the year 1000, she began to serve the Empress Teishi, consort of Emperor Ichijō. There are no details about Shōnagon’s life after the year 1017, but some evidence suggests that either she became a Buddhist nun after her court service ended, or she got married again and had a daughter. Either way, she died in poverty.

Her real name has been a topic of debate among scholars: “Shonagon” was an imperial rank, meaning “minor counselor”, to which was added the name “Sei,” which refers to her father’s name. Most say that she was called Kiyohara Nagiko (清原 諾子). She was said to have been the rival of writer and court lady Murasaki Shikibu.

In her diaries, Murasaki writes of Sei:

Sei Shonagon…was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever, and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them? – The Diary of Lady Murasaki, tr. Richard Bowring, 2005 (紫式部日記 –Murasaki Shikibu Nikki, 1008-1010)

Books

  • 枕草子 – Makura no sōshi (c.1002)

About her work

  • Worlding Sei Shônagon: The Pillow Book in Translation, by Valerie Henitiuk (2011)
  • Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic, by Gergana Ivanova (2018)

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