Sei Shonagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever, and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examine them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.
— Murasaki Shikibu Diary
The Alpha Rich Bitch
at a court that was full of them. Sei Shōnagon was a lady in waiting to the Heian Japanese Empress Sadako and famous for her learning - which as Murasaki points out was tissue paper thin - as well as her wit which was unkind but very genuine. Sei was good company if you were her social superior or one of the few people she genuinely liked. Otherwise... not so much.
While we know a great deal about what she was like and how she thought from The Pillow Book
we know practically nothing about her life. She was certainly a member of the Kiyowara family, probably a daughter of Kiyowara no Motosuke. Her real name is unknown, but many scholars think it might have been Kiyohara Nagiko. She may
have been briefly married to one Tachibana no Norimitsu by whom she had a son and there is a tradition that she died in poverty which is very likely a Karmic Death
inflicted on her by later commentators who were aroused to moral dismay by her frankly described participation in the ambiguous and affair-ridden mess that was Heian-era marriage and romance.
Her personality was direct and aggressive by nature, only slightly modified by the shibboleths of her time and place and she was refreshingly free from the self-pity that seems to marinate the writings of other Heian women.
- Friendto All Children: Sei rather surprisingly is this - at least of pretty well behaved children.
- Jerk Ass: A section of the Pillow Book describes the court ladies' reaction to an illiterate commoner who comes to beg alms from the palace after his house has burnt down. Sei writes for him a poem about the tragedy of transience, which he delightedly leaves with believing it to a promissory note. The ladies all think this is hilarious.
- Like a God to Me: Sei's attitude to the Empress Sadako - possibly sincere.
- The Rival: With Murasaki Shikibu who served the Empress Akiko, Sadako's rival. Murasaki's opinion of Sei is the heading quote. Sei had nothing at all to say about Murasaki herself but plenty of unkind remarks to make about her late husband and brother.