Medieval Frenemies

One of our most valuable records of life in the Heian court comes from a chatty, contrary, vulnerable lady-in-waiting whose habit of writing topical lists and musings often makes her come across like a modern blogger. Common to the etiquette of the day, her true name remained unspoken in public and is hence lost, although she is usually referred to by her nickname, Sei Shōnagon (Lesser Councillor of State Kiyo’s [Woman]). Some of her diary entries even appear to be what we might now call memes—snickering about a cat treated as a royal personage, or a long-forgotten in-joke about a spindle tree, enduring today as nothing but an unintelligible punchline.

Sei Shōnagon loves getting letters; she derives a nerdy joy at finding books she hasn’t read before. Rude people piss her off. She can never find a truly good pair of tweezers. She hates that moment when you splash ink on a book you are copying out; that moment when you wait up all night for a man who doesn’t show; or when he does and then snores loud enough for your neighbors to know what’s going on.

She doesn’t like going to bed alone, and burning fine incense that makes her feel like she is a class act if there is no man to notice. When she looks in her Chinese mirror and the burnished bronze is a little cloudy, it makes her fret that she, too, is losing her looks. When an evening letter arrives from her lover, she can’t wait to find a lamp, and uses tongs to snatch a lump of red charcoal from the nearby brazier, squinting in the half-light, heedless of the fire hazard.

Sei Shōnagon gets annoyed when she hires an exorcist to deal with someone’s spirit possession, only for the guy to turn out to be a drowsy charlatan. She swells with childish pride when the empress addresses her and she accidentally says the right thing in response.

When her carriage travels down a narrow woodland lane, she reaches out to touch the trees.

Haters still hated. Murasaki Shikibu (the “Wisteria Girl of the Ministry of Ceremonies ), a fellow court lady who also kept a diary, couldn’t stand Sei Shōnagon, but had to put up with her scribblings. A thousand years later, we are immensely fortunate to have access to the writings of both these remarkable women, who not only wrote beautifully and evocatively about their lives, but did so at the same time and place. Somewhere, sitting in a bar not far from you right now, there is a pair of frenemies just like them—one bubbly, chatty, and sensual; the other shy, plainer, but smarter. Sei Shōnagon is the hot, flirty one with a ready comeback; Murasaki Shikibu is the wallflower who thinks of something cleverer, but only on the way home. Widowed at a young age, Murasaki was introverted, introspective, icily witty but faintly repulsed by human contact, particularly with Sei Shōnagon, whom she regarded as insufferably smug, airheaded, and with an inflated sense of her own literary merits.

“If we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place,” Murasaki wrote, “we find that they are full of imperfections.” By far the smarter one, Murasaki tried and largely failed to keep her intellect secret from her fellow court ladies, whom she rightly suspected would be at first curious, and then jealous. Murasaki, who dismissed Sei Shōnagon for her flighty interests and empty opinions, had the last laugh, being remembered as the world’s first novelist for writing The Tale of Genji around the turn of the eleventh century.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

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