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Chinese porcelain pillows

Chinese porcelain pillows: ‘cool’ headrests

Chinese porcelain pillows
Yellow and black glazed ceramic pillow, Liao Period, 907-1125 or later. 42½ x 17 x 13½ cm. Realized €2,400 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Capitoliumart s.r.l. and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Today, people commonly sleep on pillows filled with foam or feathers. Yet scores of pillows retrieved from Chinese Tang, Song and Ming Dynasty tombs (618-c1600) are made of cold, smooth, rock-hard porcelain. Archeologists believe that, like funerary utensils, kitchen vessels and weaponry, these figured in everyday life.

Contemporary literary sources not only confirm this, but reveal that porcelain pillows served multiple functions. For example, poet Zhang Lei (1054-1114), in Thanks to Master Huang for the Green Porcelain Pillow, wrote, “ It cools down with the breeze in the room; so that my head is cool while I’m sleepy.” Gao Lian, in Eight Treatises on the Nurturing of Life (1591), observed that they brightened the eyes, benefiting their pupils, “so that one is able to read tiny writing in the night.”

In addition, sleeping on porcelain pillows evidently maintained healthful posture and preserved elaborate hairdos. They may also have served as reclining pillows or small wrist rests, possibly for pulse-taking or other medical procedures. Perhaps they doubled as domestic decoration as well.

Chinese porcelain pillows
Chinese blue and white porcelain pillow, 8.89 x 29.97 cm. Realized $95,000 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Harvard Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Though created in various lengths and widths, each molded, hollow porcelain pillow featured at least one vent, which dissipated possible destructive heat of the kiln. Some, brick-shaped, bear wide, curved, neck-supporting “cradles.” More sophisticated ovoid, octagonal, waisted-rectangular, heart or petal-shaped pillows, for example, incorporate arched surfaces into their designs.

Even the smallest reflect remarkable artistic skill. Many are painted with scenes of daily life, folk tale imagery or expansive landscapes. Others are incised with wishes, blessings, poetry, decorative calligraphy or inspiring quotes from Tao, Confucian or Buddhist philosophies. Evidently, owning one of these luxurious objects signified not only wealth and prestige, but also refinement and spirituality.

Chinese porcelain pillows
Sancai pottery pillow, China, featuring incised floral scrolls with underglaze green, amber and cream, 4¼ x 11⁵⁄₈in. Realized $8,000 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

The Chinese believed that dream-spirits inhabited the real world, that spirit and substance intertwined. So perhaps they believed that porcelain pillow-sleep bridged the conscious with the unconscious. Since dreams were regarded as omens, they may have also functioned as spiritual prompts.

Porcelain pillows probably served men and women alike. Yet in Chinese society, birth of male heirs was not only deeply desired, but could also alter a woman’s position within her extended family. So pillows depicting – or molded like – spirited or slumbering boys were probably found in women’s quarters. So might ones inscribed with phrases extoling feminine domesticity and parental obligations.

Chinese porcelain pillows
Mirror pair Chinese porcelain ‘boy’ pillows both wearing a prunus blossom on cracked ice patterned baby bib in underglaze blue, 10in x 14in. Realized $3,500 + buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy Eddie’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Pillows depicting children at play or infants clasping peony vines (symbolizing continuity) or lotus leaves (symbolizing successive generations),were favored wedding gifts. So were those which, through flowers or fluttering butterfly motifs, offered blessings and good luck.

Porcelain pillows were immensely popular during the Song dynasty (960-1127). Most, available in a variety of shapes and forms, were produced in the Cizhou kiln, located in northern China. Many feature cream-colored slip incised with elegant, contrasting, iron-based geometrical, figural, animal, filigree or scenic designs. Others feature fine painted patterns.

Chinese porcelain pillows
Cizhou ceramic pillow, Song Dynasty, 10¾in wide. Realized $3,500 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Sancai porcelain pillows, dating from the Liao era (907-1125 ) in present-day Northeastern China, feature strong delineating lines carved through slip and cream-green and amber lead underglazes. Many bear simple lotus-and-flower or leaf-and-vine motifs. Scores boast more complex bamboo-leaf, flower bed, wavy patterns or incised Chinese zodiac or figural imagery. Others depict dense floral, vine or leafy underbrush inhabited by lions and tigers.

Yet pillows actually shaped like these auspicious beasts, were—and remain—far more desirable. Who could deny that fierce foo dog (guardian lion) and tiger pillows (eyes bulging, canines bared) repel malicious spirits?

Chinese porcelain pillows
Chinese opium pillow depicting garden scenes with flowers and birds, 24 x 18 x 16 cm. Realized €180 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Veilinghuis de Jager and LiveAuctioneers

Porcelain sleeping pillows gradually fell from use during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In the 19th century, however, they resurfaced in Chinese and overseas opium dens. Many, featuring blue underglaze floral or birds-and-flower motifs, were brick-shaped or rectangular; others were cast as cats or charming children. All featured apertures into which smokers cached their money and valuables for safekeeping. Once these apertures were placed flush against the walls, heads reclined, and smoking began. Within moments, some claimed, their porcelain pillows felt as soft as clouds.

Chinese porcelain pillows