Monday, April 25, 2022

Eric Bies: Twenty-Seven Views of the Spindle Tree: on Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book

Little more than a thousand years ago,

Sei Shōnagon—lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan and literary rival to the inventor of the novel, Murasaki Shikibu—set down her robed rump upon a freshly woven mat of rushes in her private apartment in the imperial palace and began to write. She had much to say. Her diary, a splendid pottage of anecdotes, profiles, tastes, confessions, and outings sensitively recounted, remains a relatively recent addition to the canon of Eastern literatures apprehended by Western eyes.


Only in the last hundred years have the Englishly Japaneseless been afforded the opportunity to come to know and appreciate The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. The “The,” by the way, is instructive: other pillow books written by other court ladies marched out alongside it, most have been forgotten or lost, and others followed—personal miscellanies, diaries, anti-diaries—but hers marks the high point in the history of the form.


In 1889, Shōnagon made her English debut in the sixteenth annual publication of the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. The paper in question was presented by two diplomats to that august nation, T. A. Purcell and W. G. Aston. The title they landed on was “A Literary Lady of Old Japan.” A mere nine pages in print—a curiosity in extracts—made for a scanty start, but it was a start indeed. It took forty more years for another British Orientalist, Arthur Waley, to throw his hat in the ring. Waley, whose unbelievable industry in the translation of Chinese and Japanese texts bore more fruit than the next ten practitioners combined, completed his rendering of the first proper Pillow Book in 1928. But it wasn’t until 1967, with the publication of a landmark edition assembled by Ivan Morris, that the work would make anything like waves in the sea of the Western mind.


Any reader lucky enough to have stumbled into Shōnagon’s inner world will vouch for the significance of the experience. For Georges Perec, who read her in French, there were few works of literature more thrilling—for Murasaki Shikibu, few that were more grating. If nothing else, most readers tend to attest to the striking, often strange, distinction of the work, and are liable at the slightest prodding to reveal its most memorable aspect: the variety, poetry, humor, and humanity of its 164 different lists.

5. Different Ways of Speaking

A priest’s language.

The speech of men and of women.

The common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words.

13. Depressing Things

A cold, empty brazier.

An ox-driver who hates his oxen.

A scholar whose wife has one girl child after another.

A wet-nurse who has run out of milk.

14. Hateful Things

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

A flight of crows circle about their loud caws.

One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room.

Very hateful is a mouse that scurries all over the place.

Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason—and then that person goes and does something hateful.


In the spirit of clarity, translators have tended to fix titles to the tops of these records of eclecticism (something Shōnagon herself never did). Morris, for instance, accompanies his readers in the passage from one plainly marked section to another—from “Pleasing Things” and “Annoying Things” to “Awkward Things,” and so on. (Those in search of paradise will find it listed under “Things That are Near Though Distant.”) Other lists bear even plainer titles. Take section number twenty-seven, “Trees.” After setting down the “maple and the five-needled pine, the willow and the orange tree,” Shōnagon, who is celebrated for her candor, makes this rather cryptic remark:

27. Trees

I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.


Annoyingly and awkwardly, Morris, too, says absolutely nothing about the spindle tree—a perplexing state of affairs, seeing as his edition of the text accords a hundred pages of endnotes (584 of them!) to just twice as many pages of Pillow Book. Some commentators, loath to admit to stumpedness, have decided to read what isn’t there, taking Shōnagon’s apparently paradoxical declaration for a kind of Zen relic, proto-koan, or postmodern pose. But the general response to this passage has consisted in no response at all.

27. Trees

I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.


other trees and other names. Consider Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who initiated the practice of giving each species a Latin name: he grew up in the shadow of a towering linden tree on his father’s estate, and failed even in the Latinizing of his own name to escape its grasp. Consider Matsuo Kinsaku, the grandmaster of haiku, whose fondness for the bashō (banana) tree in his backyard motivated the installation of a nom de plume. But “Sei Shōnagon,” a name that makes customary reference to a father’s clan and an imperial position, was the name Sei Shōnagon used at court. Her actual name is unknown.

27. Trees

I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.

Euonymus japonicus (evergreen spindle or Japanese spindle) is a species of flowering plant in the family Celastraceae, native to Japan, Korea and China. It is an evergreen shrub or small tree growing to 2–8 m (6 ft 7 in—26 ft 3 in) tall, with opposite, oval leaves 3–7 cm long with finely serrated margins. The flowers are inconspicuous, greenish-white, 5 mm diameter. In autumn, orange fruit hangs below the flaring pink seed coverings.

Notices of New Plants Which Are Either Useful or Ornamental (1844)

Euonymus Japonicus…. He says it is in Japan a bush about as high as a man. With us it is not as yet higher than three or four feet, but it has all the appearance of becoming much larger. Although no beauty is to be found in its flowers, this plant is of the same kind of value as the common Laurel, Phyllitreas, and Alaternus, being a hardy evergreen shrub, with much the appearance of a small-leaved Orange. It is true that in very severe winters it is liable to be killed to the ground, but so are the Bay, the Ilex, and others; it however springs up again and rapidly forms a new bush.

Ascertained Effects of the Winter of 1853–4 Upon Exotics Cultivated in the Gardens, &c. of Great Britain. Compiled from various sources.

Euonymus japonicus; not injured, Chiswick; killed to the ground on a wall with an eastern aspect, Shiffnal; slightly killed on a wall facing the south, Liverpool; lost the leading shoots, Bicton; slightly pinched, Southampton.

Naturalist’s World (1884)

Recently, in examining sections of Euonymus Japonicus, an ordinary garden plant, I found that all the parenchymatous parts of it abounded in Sphaeraphides, that is aggregated rhomboidal crystals of oxalate of lime. A thin section of a branch or twig will show them in both pith and bark. It is well to digest the section for a short time in a solution of caustic potash, wash away the alkali and examine the specimen under a microscope in a suitable medium. With polarised light and a blue selenite, the crystals appear like gold spangles. In the many sections of wood that I have examined, I have never found similar crystals in the pith, though they are common enough in the bark. The leaf of the plant abounds in them. Dried and incinerated it yields 17 per cent. of ash, chiefly salts of lime.

The Garden Magazine (1912)

E. Japonicus is often seen in our Southern states, where it almost rivals the Aucuba in its fecundity of variegated forms—margined or blotched with yellow, white, etc. Such varieties are always highly prized by beginners, but in my opinion are of little or no real value compared with the hardier, green forms.

Euonymus plants, commonly known as burning bush, spindle tree, and wahoo, contain alkaloids that cause gastrointestinal disturbances and cardiac glycosides, which can affect your pet’s heart.

27. Trees

I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.

The Diary of Lady Murasaki

Sei Shōnagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so presumptuously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

Ivan Morris

This is almost our only information about Sei Shōnagon excerpt what is revealed by The Pillow Book itself.

Murasaki Shikibu, a contemporary of Shōnagon and the author of Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925–1933), was not among Shōnagon’s admirers…. Murasaki was introspective and philosophical, and her dislike of the gregarious and showy Shōnagon is not surprising. In general, the criticism should be read as an opinion from a rival whose personality was decidedly different. There may, however, be a germ of truth in Murasaki’s description of Shōnagon.

27. Trees

I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.


Genji commands a minimum length of a thousand pages in most translations. In Seidensticker’s brick, the average chapter spans twenty close-set pages: some chapters, of course, are longer, but fewer are shorter. One chapter, not only the shortest but conspicuous for its extreme modesty, is an out-and-out outlier at just three pages in all.

Chapter 27, The Tale of Genji

The new moon was quick to set. The sky had clouded delicately over and the murmur of the rushes was sadder. They lay down side by side with their heads pillowed against the koto. He stayed very late, sighing and asking whether anywhere else in the world there were attachments quite like this one. Reluctantly, fearful of gossip, he was about to leave. Noticing that the flares in the garden were low, he sent a guards officer to stir and refuel them.

They had been set out, not too brightly, under a spindle tree that arched gracefully over the cool waters of the brook, far enough from the house so that they too seemed cool and gentle. In the soft light the lady was more beautiful than ever. The touch of her hair was coolly elegant, and a certain shyness and diffidence added to her charm. He did not want to leave.

185. It Is Getting So Dark

How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time? Readers have declared, however, that I can be proud of my work. This has surprised me greatly; yet I suppose it is not so strange that people should like it, for, as will be gathered from these notes of mine, I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.

Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light.


Eric Bies is a high school English teacher. He lives in California.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

The #Midwessay: Sarah Cords, You Can't Go Home Again

It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation. 

To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say. 

Craig Reinbold

We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]