Category Archives: Literature

Be Extremely Repetitive in Your Use of Vocabulary

I know I am!

Heian literature requires a  great deal of effort to translate from the original Japanese, and must be altered totally from its initial form. Why might that be, you ask? A common Heian literary conceit, which was considered elegant at the time, was the excessive overuse of a single adjective in a sentence – to the point of using a strong adjective perhaps  four times in the same sentence.

Sei Shonagon in “The Pillow Book” frequently used adjectives such as “charming” over and over and over again in an anecdote. Were such a passage directly translated, the meaning of the writing would be utterly lost on a modern day reader. It would be far too boring and mind-numbingly repetitive.

On the other hand, perhaps this repetitiveness isn’t too far from the experience of the modern day literature fan. Many writers today, whether of novels, newspaper articles, or blogs, seem to re-use the same vocabulary.

I know I overuse the words ridiculous, hilarious, weird, amazing, awesome, and random. Maybe that assortment of words captures my particular take on life.  Possibly I should start looking at a thesaurus every once in a while.

If anyone calls you out on your slim vocabulary or overuse of a few choice adjectives, turn the tables on them. “Oh, I do that on purpose,” you’ll say. “I find it elegant. It’s very Heian.”

They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. You win.



Filed under Literature, Shonagon, translation, Uncategorized

Make Strange Wagers with Your Boss

Though gambling is one of the remaining taboos in American culture, it was an every day amusement in Heian Japan. Betting was common, whether over competitive games such as Go, who could come up with the best poem, or every day events in nature over which one had no control.

One anecdote in Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” involves Heian-era gambling at its best. Sei boastfully declares that a certain mountain of snow will certainly not melt before a particular date that is weeks off. The Empress whom she serves, amused by the proclamation, takes her up on the wager. This leads to a great deal of stress for Sei. Initially confident, she finds herself spending weeks obsessively checking up on the snow mountain.

How many weeks will it take to melt?

How many weeks will it take to melt?

Her knowledge of nature and its ways ever sharp, Sei finds that while snow on the ground continues to melt, the snow mountain is still rather large. It melts further and further as times passes, however, and the last few days of watching an waiting are the worst for Sei.

Finally, the night before the final date of the wager, a relieved Sei notices there is still a tiny mound of snow left.  While she would not have lost a good deal of money had she lost, the mockery and laughter to which she would have been subject would have been totally merciless.

The next morning, as Sei arises, the mountain is GONE. Totally! Suspecting some sort of sabotage, she goes to the Empress, who bursts out laughing in her face. While Sei had won, the Empress ordered men to destroy and haul off the remaining snow in the night just to see the look on Sei’s shocked, distressed face.

There’s a lesson here. Don’t make weird bets with your boss you can’t absolutely control. While it may be tempting to wager that a leftover slice of cake won’t be eaten two weeks after an office birthday party, your boss might secretly bribe a glutton with low standards to eat it when you’re not looking. Offer a bet like that, and you might just be the laughing stock of the office. Think about it.


Filed under gambling, Literature, nature, Pillow Book, Sadako, Shonagon

No Lady Reads Chinese!

It’s no secret that Heian era literature was dominated by women writers. From 900 – 1,000 A.D., the majority of the literary works we still read and enjoy today were written by women, whether Sei Shonagon, Murasaki Shikibu, Lady Sarashina, or Izumi Shikibu. As a result of this phenomenon, the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, was written by one of the aforementioned Heian ladies.

How did women come to dominate early Japanese literature? At the time, women were highly discouraged from reading or writing in Chinese, the official language of the Heian court. The Japanese court at Heian Kyo had mimicked Chinese society in many areas, such as in the city’s grid layout or bureaucracy. Chinese was seen as the “higher” language, and women were not supposed to memorize Chinese poems or read in Chinese.

Murasaki Shikibu, who would later come to dominate the Japanese vernacular, displayed uncommon talent at memorizing Chinese passages as her brother struggled with the same. Her parents pitied that she was not born a boy. In later years, her servants were scandalized at her ability to read Chinese, and prominent collection of Chinese books.

“It’s because she behaves this way that she is so miserable! What kind of woman reads Chinese?!” they wondered.
How about the creator of the world’s first novel?

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Filed under Genji, Ladies, Literature, Murasaki Shikibu