Sunday, September 05, 2004

What things in life could truly be called "noble"?

Since we seem to be on a poetry theme here, how about a Japanese classic? There's actually more to this than meets the idea. Can you figure out the main point here?

Noble Things
What are noble things?
A small kimono colored purple and white,
A white egg,
A sherbet with clear syrup in a new, silver bowl,
A crystal rosary,
A wisteria,
A plum blossom capped with snow,
A cute, little boy eating strawberries.

- Sei-Shonagon (10th century)
(translated by N. Hirano / K. Maxfield)

So, what things in life would you truly consider to be "noble"?


ElTigris said...

A public official that would take his job as seriously and be as honest as other professions aspire to- like soldiers... EMTs ... policemen ..firemen ... teachers mention a few.

So far I havent seen anyone in the last four years elected to high office that can measure up to their standards ...except exceling in chicanry and abusive excess.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Too obvious, ElTigris. Too obvious.

Anonymous said...

Seiji Takahashi:

Noble Things
What are noble things?
The bridge in Astoria,
A family,
Mount Hood,
The human touch,
A girl imitating a dolphin in a pool.
These are a few of my noblest things.

About the other guy, just a few observations.
1. All lines begin with "A" meaning the 2nd word is always a consonant.
2. Except for the last line, all items contain or can contain the color white (unless that was a white boy eating strawberries).
3. Color is evoked in all cases.

Anonymous said...

Murasaki Shikibu:

Sei-Shonagon is sadly overrated, but I'll comment on those points:

1. There are no indefinite articles in Japanese, so the "A" bit is only relevant to this English translation. I might also point out that the consonant reference is also irrelevant in the original, archaic Japanese.
2. Sherbet in the Heian Era (8th to 11th centuries) was made with a combination of rice and sweetened bean paste. It was purple in color.
3. The color reference is actually significant, and the colors listed in the poem are used as a traditional reference to it. (Students learning it in school often make a sort of origami using papers of the listed colors.) However, what is the significance of those colors?

Now, after you've finished wasting time with that arrogant hag's so-called poetry, you can try reading my book, The Tale of Genji, one of history's first romance novels (written at about the same time as this poem).

Don Snabulus said...

Seiji Takahashi

When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.
-- Sei Shonagon, _The Pillow Book_

So what possibilities are there?

1. The boy ain't noble.
2. He was beaten and left in the snow before eating strawberries leaving him purple and white.
3. The poet is a pedophile.
4. Or I could cheat and research it on the Internet and say that white is the most revered color in Japan (hence the white field on the flag) and that purple is the color associated with the Emperor. Therefore, the child is the Emperor (a conclusion I came to on my own after looking at what I read above).

The Internet is where I found the poem and a blog dedicated to the author. It is interesting that there is a somewhat different translation of the words there.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Oh, you CHEATER!!!!!!

Okay, you got about 80% of the significance, but there's still more to it. It's true that all of the items listed in the poem (including the boy, if you assume he's either the Emperor or a prince) contain the color purple and/or white, both of which were noble colors in those days. The colors pink and silver, also represented in the poem, were also associated with the nobility then. The colors are not the only point, though. Look at the items themselves.

An aristocrat of the Heian Era would probably consider all of those items to be everyday things with no significance whatsoever. If you were to ask him or her what constituted "noble things", s/he would invariably start talking about anything connected with the obsessions of people of class in those days, i.e. Buddhism and classic (even in the 10th century!) literature (and, lest we forget, sex).

Nevertheless, look at the items that are listed:

1. A small kimono colored purple and white - Only members of the royal family were permitted to wear those colors, so obviously it is clothing for a prince.
2. A white egg - Eggs (usually duck or pheasant eggs) were actually rare and very expensive in those days. Commoners ate them rarely if ever.
3. A sherbet with clear syrup in a new, silver bowl - Sherbet was also a treat affordable only by the aristocracy. The fact that it is in a new, silver bowl (an expensive luxury item) underlines the point.
4. A crystal rosary - Buddhism was very much the religion of the higher classes. (The common people still mainly practiced Shinto.) Regular prayer beads were made of wood or stone. Very, very few people could boast ones made of crystal!
5. A wisteria - The wisteria flower, or fuji, was the symbol of the Fujiwara clan, which was more or less the royal family at the time. Emperors and other members of the royal family could only keep their title if they married a Fujiwara. Wisteria flowers tended to be found growing all over the temples and palaces of the aristocracy...and even today they are often found around famous, old buildings. The flower, obviously was untouchable by commoners.
6. A plum blossom capped with snow - Despite being a mainstay of traditional, Japanese culture, the plum tree is not native to Japan. It was brought in from China. In the Heian Era, it was still relatively rare except in the gardens of the aristocrats, where it was a common feature.
7. A cute, little boy eating strawberries - Believe it or not, strawberries are also not native to Japan and were imported. During the Heian Era, most commoners had probably never even seen one. Like sherbet, they were a luxury affordable only by the very rich.

So you see, Sei-Shonagon chose as "noble things" items that were part of everyday aristocratic life but were both unique to the aristocrats and included the colors that signified them. In other words, what makes one truly "noble" is often things he takes for granted.

(Thanks to Nahoko Hirano, former classical Japanese instructor at my school, both for helping me translate the poem and explaining its meaning.)

Don Snabulus said...

Well, the important thing is that here in the 21st century, the colors purple and white stand for THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS!!! Take that Packer freaks.

Wait a minute, I like the Packers.

Pphhhhhhhhffffftttt. Turned into a cabbage.

Anonymous said...


Too bad the Vikings SUCK!!!!!

No, wait...that's Duke...