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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.