The Pillow Book

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This article is about the Japanese book. For the Peter Greenaway film of the same name, see The Pillow Book (film).
Sei Shōnagon in a late 17th century illustration

The Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi?) is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi (定子) during the 990s and early 11th century in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.

In it she included lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry, and some opinions on her contemporaries. While it is mostly a personal work, Shōnagon's writing and poetic skill makes it interesting as a work of literature, and it is valuable as a historical document. Part of it was revealed to the Court by accident during Shōnagon's life. The book was first translated into English in 1889 by T. Purcell and W. G. Aston. Other notable English translations were by Arthur Waley in 1928, Ivan Morris in 1967, and Meredith McKinney in 2006. The Dog Pillow is an Edo period parody.

Other pillow books[edit]

Sei Shōnagon, illustration from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu (Edo period)

More generally, a pillow book is a collection of notebooks or notes which have been collated to show a period of someone or something's life. In Japan such kind of idle notes are generally referred to the zuihitsu genre. Other major works from the same period include Kamo no Chōmei's Hōjōki and Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa. Zuihitsu rose to mainstream popularity in the Edo period, when it found a wide audience in the newly developed merchant classes. Furthermore, it gained a scholarly foothold, as Japanese classical scholars began customarily writing in the zuihitsu style. Reputable authors from this movement include Motoori Norinaga, Yokoi Yayu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu.[1]

There is a 1996 film of the same name by writer/director Peter Greenaway, which tells a modern story but references Sei Shōnagon's literary work. The film stars Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor.

The Pillow Book is also the name of a series of radio thrillers written by Robert Forrest and broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour Drama. These are detective stories with Sei Shōnagon as a principal character and feature many of her lists.[2]

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