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Song ceramic pillows — so much more than a cool aid

As well as keeping the head cool, ancient Chinese ceramic pillows warded off evil spirits and made for auspicious gifts. Tang and Song dynasty pillows — such as the Ding ‘lion’ pillow above offered in Treasures from a Distinguished East Asian Collection on 15 May — are especially highly prized

It might seem odd to discuss the function, cultural significance and artistic value of a pillow. Whether it’s filled with feathers or memory foam, the humble pillow is regarded as little more than an aid to a good night's sleep. In ancient China, however, ceramic pillows were commonly used as burial wares, although archaeological discoveries and literary evidence suggest they were endowed with multiple functions. 

Requiring extreme skill to produce, the ceramic pillows from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD) dynasties, in particular, are highly prized for their cultural value and place in the history of ceramic art. 


They were the ultimate cool aid

The hot summer nights in southern China led to a surge in products designed to cool the bed, including ceramic pillows, which were also believed to keep the eyes healthy. In his poem Thanks to Master Huang for the Green Porcelain Pillow, poet Zhang Lei of the Northern Song dynasty wrote: ‘Pillow made by Gong is strong and blue; an old friend gave it to me to beat the heat; it cools down the room like a breeze; keeping my head cool while I sleep’. The poem not only highlights the efficiency of ceramic pillows as cooling aids, but also reflects how appreciated they were by members of the Song literati.

A Cizhou sgraffito ‘peony’ octagonal pillow. Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). 11⅛ (28.2 cm) wide. Sold for HK$56,250 11 October 2017, Online

A Cizhou sgraffito ‘peony’ octagonal pillow. Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). 11⅛ (28.2 cm) wide. Sold for HK$56,250 11 October 2017, Online

They carried auspicious meanings 

Ceramic pillows became a practical necessity during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Due to small living spaces, bedding doubled as decoration that typically reflected the customs and culture of the period. Ceramic pillows with baby and lotus-flower motifs were often presented by parents to their children as wedding gifts, carrying their wishes for a happy marriage and many offspring.

The theme of playing children is prevalent among ceramic pillows from the Song dynasty, such as a carved Chengguan sancai-glazed boy’ pillow in the form of an infant sleeping on his side with a lotus leaf in one hand, which sold for HKD100,000 (about $13,000) at Christie’s in 2016.

In addition to children at play, flowers and butterflies were other popular motifs that carried auspicious meanings. In 2016 Christie's sold a Henan incised and painted polychrome ‘butterfly’ ruyi-shaped pillow, shown below, for HKD212,500 (around $27,000). The dancing butterflies in spring depicted on this pillow — made perhaps 1,000 years ago — represent a blessing for a perfect marriage.

A Henan incised and painted polychrome butterfly ruyi-shaped pillow, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). 10⅛  in (25.7  cm) long, box. Sold for HK$212,500 on 4 October 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A Henan incised and painted polychrome 'butterfly' ruyi-shaped pillow, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). 10⅛ in (25.7 cm) long, box. Sold for: HK$212,500 on 4 October 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

They were thought to ward off evil spirits

Certain animals were thought to possess magical powers that could protect homes and families from evil spirits. While the skills required to produce exquisitely carved animals were mastered by artisans in the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206-220 BC) dynasties, animal-shaped pillows were increasingly produced in the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.

A Northern white ware figural pillow, China, 10th century. 6⅜  in (16.2  cm) wide. Sold for $149,000 on 20 March 2015  at Christie’s in New York

A Northern white ware figural pillow, China, 10th century. 6⅜ in (16.2 cm) wide. Sold for $149,000 on 20 March 2015 at Christie’s in New York

Lion-shaped ceramic pillows were particularly popular during the Song-Jin period. Lions were regarded as auspicious creatures with sufficient ferocity, strength and spiritual energy to ward off evil spirits, and the lion-shaped pillows produced in Cizhou kilns were the most sought-after of all. The unique dragon-shaped ceramic pillows produced in Jingdezhen during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1279) were used by royal families and aristocrats.

A Cizhou-type painted sgraffiato pillow, Song Dynasty (960-1279). 12  in (30.5  cm) long. Sold for $87,500 on 18-19 September 2014  at Christie’s in New York

A Cizhou-type painted sgraffiato pillow, Song Dynasty (960-1279). 12 in (30.5 cm) long. Sold for $87,500 on 18-19 September 2014 at Christie’s in New York

They carried life lessons

The remarkable skill and creativity of ancient craftsmen is evident on the smallest ceramic pillows, which were often embellished with landscapes, figures and famous paintings rendered using a variety of techniques. Also engraved on these pillows were poems, calligraphy and quotes from the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, serving to reflect their owner’s spirituality and act as reminders and encouragement to lead a better life.

A Cizhou painted tiger-form pillow, Jin dynasty (1115-1234). 14½  in (37.5  cm) long, box. Sold for HK$687,500 on 30 November 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall

A Cizhou painted tiger-form pillow, Jin dynasty (1115-1234). 14½ in (37.5 cm) long, box. Sold for: HK$687,500 on 30 November 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall

They come in a multitude of shapes

The development of ceramic pillows peaked during the Song and Jin dynasties which witnessed a multitude of forms, from circular and bean-shaped to oval, fan, polygonal and even petal shapes. In 2016 Christie’s sold a stunning Ding sgraffiato ‘foliage’ bean-shaped pillow  for HKD137,500 (about $17,600). Its simple oval frame encapsulates a scrolling band of russet foliage that symbolises lasting love. Similar examples can be found in the collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing.

Foliage designs against a white or black slip were common in the Hebei, Henan and Shanxi provinces during the two dynasties, with the most sophisticated designs usually originating from the Xiuwu Dangyangyu kiln in Henan.