Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

SEI SHŌNAGON
(ca. 965?-?)

Japan
Heian Diarist and Waka Poet

Sei Shōnagon merits recognition for her singular role as one of Japan's greatest prose writers. Historians esteem The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi) as an invaluable compendium of court events and customs, making it one of the most important documents to have survived from the Heian period (794-1192). In addition to The Pillow Book, Shōnagon has left behind a small collection (shū) of poems entitled the Sei Shōnagon shū. The exceptional quality, of Shōnagon's prose writing, rather than her surviving waka ("Japanese poem" with thirty-one syllables), ranks her among the best poets of her time.

When the acknowledged poetic genius Ono no Komachi (ca. 830/835-899) began writing her poems, the unique cultural advances associated with the Heian period had started to flourish, having been initially influenced by two continental cultures: China and Korea. During the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, at the acknowledged height of the Heian culture's amazing literary achievements, a group of uniquely gifted female authors produced works of exceptionally high quality, some in poetry and others in prose.

The appearance of these impressive literary masterpieces, which were written around the turn of the century (ca. 1000), is partially attributed to the existence of a phonetic writing system known as kana. The existence of kana gave women the means to express themselves in writing. Additionally, court ladies-in-waiting enjoyed a stimulating social environment and had adequate leisure time in which to write, along with access to paper, all of which facilitated the production of their literary, works.

Two prose works that depict life in the Heian court around the turn of the tenth century represent historically important documents of the highest significance, and many people also regard them as being among the greatest contributions to Japanese literature. Lady Murasaki Shikibu The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), seen as

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