Month: November 2020

The Pillow Book

229. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (994-1002) – chronolit About the Author

Sei Shonagon lived in Heian Japan between  966-1017.  It is believed that her real name was Kiyohara Nagiko.  Her father, Kiyohara no Motosuki, was a provincial governor who was also known for his waka poetry. Her grandfather, Kiyohara no Fukayabu, was also a waka poet.  While her father had an appointment in the provinces, Sei lived most of her life in the capital which was the seat of the imperial court.  She served under the Empress Teishi between 993-1000 who was a consort of Emperor Ichijo.  There is a lot of speculation about her life.  We are only offered a glimpse with her writings in The Pillow Book.  She does not mention being married or having children in her writings but other sources say she was married and had a child.  Sei had a rival in court named Murasaki Shikibu.  According to Norton’s Anthology, Murasaki saw her as conceited and her writings left much to be desired.

Chikanobu (1838 - 1912) Sei Shonagon at the Imperial Palace | Japanese woodblock printing, Japanese painting, Japanese

About the Heian Court and the Heian Period

Sei Shonagon lived in the middle of the Heian period.  According to our anthology, the capital was Heian-Kyo, the “Capital of Peace and Tranquility”, which is now present day Kyoto.  The Heian period is known for its art and literature, especially poetry.  Buddhism, Daoism, and other Chinese influences were important in this period.  The Heian Court followed a complex aristocratic system with the symbolic figure of the emperor as the center.  There was a strict hierarchy based on rank and education focused on the Chinese classics.  Sei had an excellent education in the Chinese classics but was forced to write in vernacular Japanese.  In court, men and women were segregated which meant letters had to be exchanged in order to communicate.  Women were hidden behind paper doors and rarely seen.  The only outlet women had in the Heian court was writing.  Daughters were used as pawns in political marriages.  The Fujiwara clan controlled the succession by ensuring their children married into the imperial family and the court. Being a courtier had its ups and downs in this period. Also, beauty was extremely important in this period. This is the period where women painted their skin white and wore long flowing robes. It was a graceful period and known as Japan’s Golden Age.

Sei Shonagon | Lapham's Quarterly

About The Pillow Book

I don’t feel that I can give The Pillow Book the accurate description which it deserves.  Historians look at The Pillow Book as a glimpse into the Heian Court and the lives of courtiers in this period.  Her uncanny views and her strong feminine voice inspire her readers.  She never writes about her life as a mother or a wife.  The Pillow Book is not a diary.  The Pillow Book is a more of a journal with miscellaneous information that she thought was important.  She wrote about nature.  She wrote about Teshi.  She wrote about politics.  She wrote about what was happening in her life and at court.  Our Norton Anthology summarizes it as “The Pillow Book chronicles with wit and humor the moments of glamour and ennui, the obsessions and trivia, of Heian court life.  Over the course of The Pillow Book, as Shonagon expounds on why some kinds of carriages should move faster than others, why priests should be handsome, or how a lover should make his good-byes, she emerges as an impatient and imperious figure.  She is every inch the aristocrat, whose fastidious standards brook no slipshod behavior.  So deft is she at homing in on human foibles and skewering the offender that the effect of her sharp sallies can be shattering.  We chuckle at her delicious wit, but we are glad we are not objects of her scrutiny.  The Pillow Book is written in a compact and forceful style, which favors brevity and compression and produces surprising effects by means of unusual juxtapositions.  Shonagon’s literary persona favors witty repartee, sly self-promotion, and occasional cutting insults.  Her candor in admitting her hypercritical nature, and her display of ruthless honesty toward others and herself, gives her an irrepressible, magnetic voice. She is a presence.” (1216-1217)

The Pillow Book - Wikipedia

In Heian court, receiving and passing astute judgement was highly desirable. Sei Shonagon used the term okashi over four hundred times.  The term okashi has different definitions according to how it is being used.  The Pillow Book focuses on beauty but doesn’t hesitate to discuss the ugliness she sees.  An example of this would be fleas dancing under ladies’ skirts.  There is some debate about when The Pillow Book was written and also whether she wanted it read by the public.  So, what exactly is The Pillow Book? Teshi’s brother had brought paper as a gift and it was given to Sei.  She bundled it up, wrote on it, and would keep it by her pillow.  One day she had a visitor who saw the manuscript, kept it, and eventually published it.  Her brush changed history and gave us a glimpse of a life that we would have never known had it remain hidden.

Sei Shonagon (@ThePillowBot) | Twitter

An Excerpt from The Pillow Book

71. Rare things-A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father.  Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in law. A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.  A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.  A person who is without a single quirk.  Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

I liked this excerpt.  This is our life.  We are not perfect.  There are ups and downs and you just have to live with it.  You cannot be afraid to be quirky.

Sei Shonagon by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1885, from the series Setsugetsuka (the beauty of four seasons) | Pintura japonesa, Japon, Ukiyo e

Another Excerpt from The Pillow Book

68.  Things that can’t be compared-Summer and winter.  Night and day.  Rainy days and sunny days. Laughter and anger.  Old age and youth.  White and black.  People you love and those you hate.  The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people.  Fire and water.  Fat people and thin people.  People with long hair and those with short hair.  The noisy commotion when crows roosting together are suddenly disturbed by something during the night.  The way they tumble off their perches, and flap awkwardly about from branch to branch, squawking sleepily, makes them seem utterly different from daytime crows.

When I read this the old adage that you can’t compare apples and oranges comes to mind.  The image of the crows squawking made me wonder if she had been seeing women in the court gossiping that day and she was trying to be polite about it.  I do like her message about comparing others and we just should not do it.

A Few Last Thoughts

In conclusion, I have not done this beautiful work justice so please read it.  Enjoy a glimpse into the past.  Meet a woman who is composing about life with the strokes of a brush.  On a side note, I have not read it but The Peach Pit has made an anime series about Sei Shonagon’s life if you like anime.

Mighty Relevant Women: Murasaki Shikibu - Mighty Fingers - Facing Change

Sources and Images Used

Puchner, M., Akbari, S. C., & Denecke, W. (2018). The Norton anthology of world literature Volume B. New York ; London: W.W. Norton et Company.

Sad Boy Hours by Li Bo

Sad Boy Hours consist of a large time slot of a male’s expression of his sad feelings. This is common over a relationship or hidden depression stage for men to encounter this time. Although this is a modern term, old Chinese Poets have encountered this time slot as well. One of the biggest examples of Sad Boy Hours during the Tang dynasty is Li Bo (also commonly known as Li Bai or Li Po).

Li Bo hit the jackpot in my eyes of career opportunities. Bo used his connections of higher officials and gained life experiences.

His first experience was accepting a post at the Hanlin Academy, an institute founded by Emperor Xuanzong to support unconventional intellectuals and literary talents. This inspired his own work but was short-lived due to his drinking habits. His next experiences of joining a cause with a rebellious prince ultimately led to his downfall, resulting in exile for his participation. During his exile, Li Bo wrote poetry that projected his views and life. His poetry is relative to the Tang time period, which treats the world at hand. His work was renown and often showed the literary strengths of bold and colloquial language. An amazing poem that stands out to me is Drinking Alone with the Moon. This poem by the title can reflect a relatable sense of drinking and loneliness. Poetry often exhibits strong emotions, and Bo does this in his poetry by his topics and his word choice.



A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.

The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I’ll make merry with them both—
And soon enough it will be Spring.

I sing–the moon moves to and fro.
I dance—my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk—and we’ll go our separate ways.

Let’s pledge—beyond human ties—to be friends.
And meet where the Silver River ends.

    The poem begins with the acknowledgment of his loneliness. Where that stems from, is not specified but controls the whole mood of the poem. His feelings can go beyond his own, reflecting on a worldly view of loneliness and despair. His continuous mood, and his drunken state, lead him to question the divine power above the moon. He asks for companionship from something that he knows cannot welcome him that feeling, “moon does not know how to drink” with him. He sulks at the idea of his shadow being his companion, which is another figure that cannot reflect his feelings. There is no real change in mood or tone in Bo’s poem, beginning and ending on a sorrowful note. Bo expresses his anguish and clings on to it till the end, as he is drunk and sad. The internal emotions are heightened from his drunk state, resulting in a sense of wild and despaired speech. He feels this about his world and the loneliness that it brings.

However not only does this poem exhibits loneliness, but there is also artistry in his words. The relationship with the moon is vivid and sad. He uses metaphors to compare his sad surroundings. The need for a connection, a human connection, can make a person very vulnerable. This can be seen in the line of ‘He and my shadow and I make three’ Bo is counting his shadow to make up for the friends he does not have. Although this is problems Bo’s doing as he was exiled in his later years, he has able to reflect that loneliness in a world view that doesn’t even seem like exile. If I wouldn’t have known he was exiled, I would have just assumed he was a lonely man. His despair is transformative through modern times.

Many modern poets have done translations of his work. Famous poets like Ezra Pound, create their own version of Bo’s poems to reflect his emotion through modern time. The translations of Bo’s works allow the literary influence to be continuous through time.

The modern feeling of loneliness is very prevalent now as the pandemic of our time has felt like isolation for some. Isolation can cause a person to try to find another connection of some type. Drinking alone combined with being isolated can lead to that same vulnerability that Bo experienced with the moon as well. I know we all have had a drink and thought about the things in our life that eat us up inside. If you have not then you are very lucky. If you have then you are not alone. Even legendary poets feel the same way as we do now after hundreds of years. Emotions are transcendent and poetry will always be an outlet for writers to express themselves in every way.  That is the joy in creativity, but also the pain in the butt of our troublesome lives. Hopefully, we can move on and not cling to those sad boy thoughts, unlike Bo. 


Works Cited

Puchner, Martin, et al. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.


A Day With Tao Qian at Happy Hal’s History Emporium

"Three Kingdoms" depiction of Tao Qian

Greetings Patron!

Howdy Historic Adventurer! If you are reading this, then that means you have purchased a ticket to the only theme park of historical figures: Happy Hal’s History Emporium! This brochure is meant to help you better understand your chosen historical figure to converse with: TAO QIAN.

TAO QIAN is a wonderful choice for those who enjoy SELF-SUFICENCY and RELAXING and

WINE! But, there are still some things you must know about your new friend! The following is a short summary of your historic figure’s back story and life’s work! Please take a few moments to read over the provided material.

And remember: Fun is a thing in the past, present, and future at Happy Hal’s History Emporium!

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Summative Background

Tao Qian lived between the Han and Tang Dynasties in what is called the Period of Disunion. His great grandfather was famous general and government official, and it is believed this man’s legacy is what drove Tao Qian into the political field where he held multiple small and overlooked jobs in the government sector for thirteen years. Until, 405 when he suddenly left his job as the magistrate of Pengze to return to his family farm. He held that position for eight days. He left the life he knew and traveled to the south for the promise of real freedom from monotony and opportunity for self sufficient living. This is where he lived out the remaining two decades of his life creating poetry, the pastime that would define his foot print on history today.

The environment in which you will spend time with Tao Qian has been modeled after historic accounts of what a small southern Chinese village would have looked like complete with simulated weather, animals, and townsfolk (NOTE: the townsfolk are not interactable). Feel free to lounge in the sunshine or under the shade of a serene Dove Tree while sipping perfectly aged (non-simulated) wine.

Life’s Work

As previously stated Tao Qian has become one of the most influential Chinese poets in the history of the world. His poetry, much like the man himself, is concerned with gardening, joy of creating poetry, wine, relaxation, friendship, and playing the zither (NOTE: Zither classes taught by Tao Qian are available as an extra charge, contact your travel agent for more details). The two largest themes in his poetry by far are the desire for freedom to accomplish one’s own inclinations from societal pressures, and the return to the natural self. However, history is still puzzled as to how far Tao Qian was willing to go to return to his natural state. It is clear that he renounced fame and official recognition in favor of his garden and wine, BUT he seemed to be very proud of his family history and somewhat disappointed in his son’s lack of accomplishment. One surprising aspect of Tao Qian’s work is that the peasants of his society (his neighbors) were able to read and write, talents reserved for the elite. Historians don’t know what this means exactly, but he may have wanted to make his neighbors look more sophisticated to his elite audience since the townspeople all share his literary interests.

The duality of Tao Qian continues when one learns that he despised worldly ambition but he wrote about himself a lot. This is a good thing however because we here at Happy Hals have an easier time in decoding his poetry and creating the best simulacrum of this amazing man. One of his works titled “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit” is a structed debate between three characters named Substance, Shadow, and Spirit all debating what is the best way to live life. These characters are believed to represent parts of himself.

Substance advocated for enjoying wine and forgetting about death: “Earth and heaven endure forever, / Streams and mountains never change.”

Shadow stressed the importance of doing good and not forgetting one’s self: “No use discussing immortality / When just to keep alive is hard enough.”

Spirt argued that one should forget about the body and mind and simply give into the waves of change: “The Great Potter cannot intervene- / All creation thrives of itself.”

The main body of his work is lighter than this, for example, “On Moving House” is a poem that captures the magic of the simple life of the south. The poem begins with a simple claim that forms the message of the poem: “For long I yearned to live in Southtown.” He then goes on to explain the lure of the south as a place full of “simple-hearted people,” and he has planned to move there for a long time. Then he compares his life in the political sphere to the quiet country of his dreams by saying: “A modest cottage does not need be large / To give us shelter where we sit and sleep,” thereby denouncing the frivolity of the court.


Thank you for taking the time to read this guide to interacting with Tao Qian on your history-hoping adventure. Here are a few points to think of when communicating with Tao Qian:

  • Don’t rush anything, take your time as it comes.
  • Relax and enjoy the wine and zither playing.
  • Don’t be afraid to expound on a person’s nature and how it is either suffocated or nurtured by their surroundings.
  • If at all possible, stress your love for simple life and dis like of complicated government issues.
  • And have fun!

By reading this brochure and signing on the line below the patron acknowledges that all possible loss of property, theft, and bodily harm are the patron’s responsibility and not Happy Hal’s History Emporium or Happy Hal’s History Emporium affiliates. The patron has also read the attached rules for the park and made carful consideration of the rule 23-c that states: no visitor to the park may touch an animatronic under any circumstance, and visitors will not use any of the black listed words  or phrases when communicating with animatronics or talking around animatronics; words and phrases include: history, your timemy time, the current year according to the Gregorian calendar, what about your family? do you like it herecan you leave? (for full list please visit

By signing this document the patron agrees that they have read the disclosure agreement above and are willing to follow the park’s guidelines.

Sign and bring to park, will not be admitted entry without signed brochure.


Aka-xcuse me, Have you read Akam Poetry? By Payton Milner

Where did it all start?

Akam poetry dates all the way back to the 1st century BC, and each poem is within the perimeter of 13 to 31 lines. Historians believe that they were means of persevering traditions and were passed down orally.

Shots fired

in the midst of Jain and Buddhist leaders slowly losing power, many writings took it upon themselves to pounce on their newfound freedom letting the flood gates drop for their own creativity and agendas. Akam poetry was no exception to this, and it began to include Hindu gods while at the same time casting the other two dominating faiths aside and even making them seem less appealing.

Shall I compare thee to a summers day?

While Akam Poetry has nothing to do with Shakespeare, I would assume Shakespeare and many others followed in Akam’s poetry’s footsteps regarding love and nature’s beauty. Akam poetry, in terms of romantic love, is typically cast into three different category. Time and place (mudal), natural setting (karu), and their actions (uri).

Can I get a wingman, please?

Akam poetry was the original wingman. Many of the romances or relationships in the writings were ushered along with a wingman’s help, such as a maid or another character whose central importance is predicated on them being the wingman to the two lovers. These characters also have more will to be fixable in the poems because they are not confined to another character, specifically like the two lovers are.

A Picture. Painted. Perfect.

When we look at “The Kurunthoka,” an Akam piece S. Ramachandran in their article, points out that it is better to read the poetry as a play being put on a stage performed for our eyes, a picture painted perfect, just as it was meant to be seen. The kurunthoka is also a poem riddled with metaphors that might not be easy to grasp, especially those who might try and take the poems for face value. Many of the metaphors have layers that need to be peeled back like an onion to get the work’s true meaning. Ramachandran again points out that when the poems start, it paints pictures of nature that are so beautiful that they set the entire play’s tone. Pictures filled with waterfalls, rainbows, gods, goddesses, and bright sunshine. It is important to note how much nature plays a role in the poem because when one can grasp the role it plays in the poems, they realize that it is the driving force behind all Akam poems.


Forest Waterfall Stock Illustrations – 2,920 Forest Waterfall Stock  Illustrations, Vectors & Clipart - Dreamstime

No, this picture has nothing to do with Spongebob, but it conveys the same happiness level that the artwork of sponge bob aims for. I believe this is the picture that Akam poetry would paint in many readers’ heads as long as you include the mythical and romantic aspect into the picture painted on the stage.

Another comparison that I thought of that one could create a parrelle with is

The Wizzard of Oz Trees!

Pin by Diana Foster on *The Wizard of Oz | Wizard of oz, Wizard of oz  movie, The wonderful wizard of oz

The reason I brought the Wizzard of Oz trees up is because Ramachandran again points out that the nature in Akam Poety are much more than just objects that set a tone or setting, they themselves play a bigger role in the grand scheme of things. The nature in Akam poety play roles much like characters in other story! He even goes as far as to point out that the nature in Akam Poetry act as narrators to the story quoted saying “The travails and fortunes of the young lovers are played out by these actors in nature.” Nature plays a major role in Akam’s poetry and for one to over look any metapohore specifaly related to nature would be directly avoiding themes, motifis, and symbols the poems were meant to convey.

Ramachandran, S. “Love And Landscapes In Sangam Poetry.” Swarajyamag, 5 Mar. 2011,

The Subtle Art of Interweaving Stories in The Arabian Nights

“If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind. Subtle art.”
― Christopher Nolan, Inception

Have you ever read a story with one storyteller at the heart of the work and many characters within this work telling their own stories? If so, you’ve encountered a frame tale or a nested story.

Nested storytelling in The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights) represents a large framework of individual stories written by unknown authors, scattered over different corners of the Middle East.

The multilayered narrative takes a story to another level, and as Norton Anthology points out: “The frame tale is an open-ended genre, in which an outer story or “frame” provides a structure within which other, shorter stories can be told.”

The overall frame centers on a good king who became a tyrant. After discovering the secret promiscuity of his wife, King Shahrayar decided that he will avoid the deception of women forever by taking a new bride every night and putting her to death in the morning. The deaths rapidly mount, the kingdom is filled with mourning parents – and to the horror and despair of the faithful royal vizier, his daughter, Shahrazad, volunteers to marry the king. He tries to dissuade her, but Shahrazad has a plan. By telling a story to the king every night, each one more marvelous and entrancing than the last, Shahrazad will continually defer the doom that awaits his bride (The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 598-599).

Concealing the true purpose of her narrative in the form of the fairy tale allows Shahrazad to talk about the issues that worry her. Nested storytelling in this case works perfectly because it doesn’t directly accuse the society of their sins, it instead allows them to judge for themselves.

The theme of all the Arabian Nights is the oppressor and the oppressed.

We see this tension play out through powerful Djinns locked in bottles, kings and their servants, parents, and children–but mostly through women’s battle for survival in a world ruled by men. This is why the women of the stories are so wily: because cunning and trickery are the first recourse of the weak. These female characters become cunning to overcome the men who oppress them. They fight to make their own choices and live according to their beliefs about freedom, sexuality, and love (Fassler).

The Arabic literary work the Thousand and One Nights involve Shahrazad narrating a series of stories to King Shahrayar for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution.

Some stories use the framing device of a dream, hence the quote from Christopher Nolan’s iconic movie Inception, because the concept of planting an idea in someone’s subconscious mind is very similar to what Shahrazad was doing every night. The classic film The Wizard of Oz uses the same framing device. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is another example of several stories joined together by a larger story.

Among the tales that Shahrazad tells her husband is The Fisherman and the Genie.

In Andrice Arp’s adaptation of the fisherman’s story, there is an interesting perspective on the way these tales are framed within one. When Andrice shifts from the frame narrative the font and squares get smaller and smaller. They get bigger as soon as we return to the main story. I would compare it to pulling smaller Russian dolls out of bigger ones. Here a smaller story nests inside a larger story, and a smaller one within that. This type of narrative is captivating and like pulling out the smallest doll – very rewarding.

The fisherman tells the genie a story involving a king, who tells a story involving a parrot, who has a little story of its own to relate.

Perhaps you’ve recognized this literary device in some of your favorite movies or books? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what examples of a frame tale you know. 


Works Cited


  • InceptionDirected by Christopher Nolanperformance by Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010.
  • Fassler, Joe. “The Humanist Message Hidden Amid the Violence of One Thousand and One Nights.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2020,
  • “The Frame Story.” The Arabian Nights – Home,
  • Kick, R. (2019, April 02). The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Retrieved November 07, 2020, from
  • The Norton Anthology of World Literature,4th edition, vol. B. W. Norton & Company, 2018. p. 598-599.