Shōnagon was an Imperial court lady who served Empress Teishi during the middle Heian era. At age sixteen, she married a government official and gave birth to a son. Shōnagon’s relationship with fellow writer and court lady Murasaki Shikibu was strained. The courts of Empress Teishi and co-empress Empress Shōshi encouraged rivalry between the writers, pitting the women against each other, despite the possibility that the two had never met. Shōnagon was famously ridiculed in Murasaki’s diary where she complained, “Shōnagon was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writing with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.”
Shōnagon’s work, The Pillow Book, was a collection of poems, anecdotes, and essays giving insight into her life as a court lady. As it was originally meant to be a private work for her enjoyment only, she was able to freely write about her thoughts and opinions that she was not allowed to state publicly. As a result, the book became extremely valuable as a historical document.
Both Shōnagon and Murasaki, as women, had an active role in Heian-era society. Japanese kana, the writing system they used in their writing, was considered “the people’s language” in comparison to formal Chinese and made them far more popular and influential for centuries to come.