27 July 2004

The Pillow Book of Sei SHonagon

A blogger named Simon Cozens is translating the classic Japanese text The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi) by Sei Shonagon into English and republishing it as a blog. It's easy to forget the fact that these words were written in the tenth century, because the results in this format read -- well, rather like a blog. Some dates are fictitous, and some liberties have been taken to produce a coherent narrative stream in blog format -- but the content is purported to be a faithful translation of the original. Since I speak neither contemporary nor classical Japanese, I'll have to take this blogger (or someone wiser)'s word for it. And no, I'm sorry -- Ewan McGregor has nothing to do with this one. Link (Thanks, Andrew)

I'm still ploughing through the Butler report. Meanwhile we get a blog version (blersion? reblogging? blelease?) of the Pillow Book. Japanese literature in the Heian period is written almost exclusively by women, most famously the Genji Monogatari by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Women were thought too stupid to ever learn Chinese, the language of 'serious' Heian writing. Sadly for the forgotten male authors they wrote either bad Chinese or Sino-Japanese. No-one reads the male authors.

Contact with China was intermittent. Even when regular it ran only to one embassy ship every five years. When China fell into one its periodic disunions, or the Japanese offended the Chinese court the ships would stop for a while. One embassy appeared at Qangan with a letter from the (ahem) Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Setting Sun. Yang Di, the second Sui emperor, was more than mildly unimpressed with these pretensions and stopped the embassies. The Japanese state of that time occupied about a third of its current territory and the court language (along with the origins of the ruling dynasty) may have been Korean.

The Heian elite was too small, too remote and too dependent to sustain a literature written in a foreign language. Someone should email the URL to Alexander Downer.

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