Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Sei Shonagon, the first blogger?

Was the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon one of the first blogs ever?

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the emperor of Japan at the end of the tenth century. One day the empress showed her a bundle of notebooks, asking her what could be done with them.

"Let me make them into a pillow", Sei Shonagon replied.

In her own words:

"I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects. I was sure, that when people saw my book they would say, "It's even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like." After all, it is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me. How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?

Any of that ring a bell?

Sei Shonagon's Jottings will appear in these pages from time to time; for now, here is a taster:

Hateful Things

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses
all sorts of subjects at random
as though he knew everything.

To envy others and to complain about one's own lot;
to speak badly about people;
to be inquisitive about the most trivial matters and to resent and abuse people for not telling one, or, if one does manage to worm out some facts, to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion as if one had known all from the beginning - oh how hateful!

An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking.
One feels like killing the beast.

Picture Wikipedia
Text in Italics The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon


  1. I really like this discovery. How did you find this?

  2. Very interesting. I compared blogging to hearing my grandmother on the first phones in the late 1940's . She rang and I mean literally rang up the same friends each day and said just about the same things to each of them. Then there was party lines and 4 friends might get on at once. We just now have pictures to share. Blessings

  3. Have you read 'The Tale of Murasaki' by Lisa Dalby?
    You might like that one too!
    I love your blog ~ wish I could have managed to get to your open garden ~ your description of the man with 'six to go' made me laugh. What is this life . . .

  4. Maybe another proof that a human being won't be able to live long without having an interactive, exchanging kind of contact with other being.
    Glad to have found you, receiving much food for thought.

  5. The blog is one step better in that the blogger can usually have at least one person to share with and appreciate the idea, experience, visual image that the blogger has unearthed and posted for others to see and comment on. For example, you've shared so many wonderful things with all of us, and it must have also given you pleasure to know we're out here, marveling over the new discoveries.

  6. I am pleased that you quoted from Sei Sh┼Źnagon’s writings (I am not very knowledgeable about Japanese literature and I did not know her) because they do sound like musings from a blog coming to us through the ages, and from the 1000s no less. Her musings sound like they could have been written in our times; it is hard to believe that she wrote them a thousand years ago.

  7. A most interesting post. Indeed, diaries were the blogs back in the day. And this quote is magnificent:

    'A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses
    all sorts of subjects at random
    as though he knew everything.'

    Many a time I have idled my hours indulging in this activity. Beautifully put.

    Greetings from London.

  8. How wonderful to be able to connect with an individual in the distant past and feel an immediate presence with that person.

  9. Tabor - I've had the book for years. It's actually called "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon", translated and edited by Ivan Morris.

    QMM - It is true, the need to speak with each other is a very ancient human need. Your grandmother sounds like a person I cold have along with.

    Rosy - ...if full of care, we have not time.... (I'll use that as a Sunday Quotation, I think); thanks for visiting. I have not read the book you
    mentioned, should I look out for it? Is it a novel?

    Robert - yes, indeed, Robert, we absolutely need to communicate on a meaningful level - zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen sind immer noch wichtig.

    Margaret - thank you so much for your kind words; let me return the compliment whole-heartedly.

    Vagabonde - Yes, I agree, some of her jottings do sound very contemporary, that's why I thought her writings might be of interest to other bloggers.

    A Cuban - thanks for visiting. As for the quote you mentioned: I think we are all guilty of that, at times.

    20th C Woman - I agree, time and space are, after all, relative, we can learn from each other across the centuries.

  10. Heh! Just goes to show that people have always wanted to exchange facts and knowledge and odd little jokes

    Great post

  11. Hi Hungry Pixie - thanks for coming by; built-in gossip mode?

  12. I agree with Pixies; this is a great post. I love learning about someone I'd quite likely never have been exposed to. Thank you.

  13. Lydia - Isn't the internet fab? Thanks for your kind remarks.

  14. Hi Friko

    thank you so much for this introduction - you may know how I am about all things Japanese...
    The quote you chose to illustrate blogging in days past is just perfect.

    I was tempted to read Tales of Genji recently but it sounds like hard work. I wonder what the book above about Murasaki (author of the Genji book ) is about. I will have to google it.

    Happy days

  15. Thanks Delwyn - I too will have to explore Murasaki. The beauty of books and book lovers is that "one fabulous thing leads to another".

  16. Friko

    The book by Liza Dalby is a novel based around Murasaki who wrote Tales of Genji. I have ordered them along with the pillow book and look forward to more leg up reading...will keep you posted once I receive them...

    Happy Days

  17. Delwyn - it would be great to have your opinion on the book.

  18. You now! I thought about what you wrote, I think Sei might be the first blogger!

    I'm reading "hateful things" for my writing class, and the first thing that popped into my head as I went through the text is that it really made me want to blog!

    There are similarities, and I never thought of connecting a journal and the world wide web!

  19. so true! sei was a blogger at heart or rather we are pillow bookers at heart. i've started reading her pieces and love the nuggets of info.


Comments are good, I like to know what you think of my posts. I know you'll keep it civil.