Previously I’d given the suggested reading list for material on the Heian period, and it reminded me of my second re-read of Lady Murasaki’s Diary (I can remember when I read fast. What the heck happened?) Anyway, there’s a poetic exchange that the translator puzzles over that makes me wonder as well. It was the time of the Chrysanthemum Festival, and one of the customs of the time at Court was to lay out raw silk coverings over the flowers at night to protect them. Chrysanthemums were also associated with longevity, so It was also believed that to wipe the dew from those coverings on oneself the next morning would restore youth. I don’t have the text in front of me to quote the poems, but the first was from the Chancellor (Michinaga?)’s wife to Murasaki, with a gift of one of these cloths and a flower branch, to “restore her youth.” Murasaki was set to reply that she had only wiped a little off her sleeve to to restore a little youth, but was sending the cloth back “so that His Excellency’s wife might get the full benefit.”
As the translator notes, there are two obvious ways to read this:
1) Face value. It was a thoughtful gift, requiring an equally courteous response or…
2) His Excellency’s Wife: “You’re getting old, Dearie.” Murasaki: “Not as old as you, Dearie.”
The diary notes that the response was never sent, since by that time His Excellency’s Wife had returned to her apartments, and so Murasaki thought there was no point pursuing the matter. Which I want to read as “Eh. You ain’t worth my time.”
Which interpretation is the right one? As the translator admits, there’s just no way to know.
I do, however, know which way I’m betting.