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Sei Shonagon: Lover of Making Lists


Being someone who loves reading, I enjoy looking for new and interesting things to read. Sometimes, I find that I can find quite innovative works and interesting people when I look into the past. I found such a discovery in one rather lesser known figure: Sei Shonagon. 清少納言 Sei Shōnagon. Unknown. c. 14th century. Public domain.

But who exactly was Sei Shonagon? Well, she was a court lady living in the Heian court period in Japan. She served Empress Sadako (not affiliated with the long haired lady who crawls out of televisions).

Japanese Empress Sadako at coronation of Emperor Taisho. Unknown - Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo. Created 1 January 1912. Public domain.

What makes Sei Shonagon important especially to Japanese history is her contribution to literature, her work "The Pillow Book". It is a fascinating glimpse into court life in the Heian era and also a look into her own life. She also established a genre of Japanese writing called zuihitsu, "to follow the brush".

She is also compared to the famous Lady Murasaki, who actually criticized Sei (in her diary, of course) for embracing every trend that came along and for being too proud of her Chinese compositions, that were "full of imperfections".

Burn book gif by xxbrandonsuxx. Photobucket.

Sei is a captivating author with a penchant for making interesting lists on topics such as "Things That Give a Pathetic Impression""Awkward Things", and of course, a list containing her pet peeves such as crying babies and people who snore (p.2). American-born Japanese scholar Donald Keene even thinks of "The Pillow Book" as the closest to "high comedy" in Japanese literature. Besides being plain hilarious, being relatable might be the reason why her work is so enduring till today.

To give you a little glimpse into Sei's life and work, here is a Listography account with some of the lists she has made. Maybe you might get inspired to create your own Pillow Book!



Lists taken from "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon - Translated and Edited by Ivan Morris" 

Retrieved from

User image in Listography account same as post's featured image