A contemporary court lady, Sei shonagon's "the pillow book" was a compilation of miscellaneous notes and reflections that provides an excellent portrait of Heian aristocratic life, with its emphasis on elegance-always an important element of the Japanese aesthetic. "The Pillow Book" provides invaluable insight into contemporary court ceremony, intrigues, and politics. In addition to its historic interest, it is a literary masterpiece, displaying a sharp wit, deft expression, and spontaneity.
Murasaki Shikibu was Japanese novelist, court figure at the height of the Heian period (795-1185). Known also as Lady Murasaki, she is celebrated as the author of the romantic novel Genji-Monogatari [tale of Genji], one of thefirst great works of fiction to be written in Japanese. It concerns the life of Prince Genji and his descendants and is a subtle and thorough delineation of a complex society.
Selections from the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book of Sei ShÔnagon combine to give a balanced picture of life among the aristocracy in Japan at the height of the Heian period. Sei ShÔnagon’s sharp and witty descriptions of court life offer an astringent account of the manners of the age, while Murasaki’s fiction expands on its ideals and attitudes with striking psychological insight. They are an important corrective to the warrior-dominated image we often have of premodern Japan, reflecting instead an earlier age when gentler arts were the most highly valued. The very fact that these two works, acknowledged as the greatest prose writing of a very rich period, were written by women is an important indication of the varieties of social organization in Japanese history. It was not until the later feudal period that women’s status declined to the position of docile subservience familiar to us from samurai movies and modern stereotypes. At the height of the classical era, women had considerable…