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The intriguing world of medieval Chinese ceramic pillows

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

Pre-modern Chinese pillows were made of hard materials like ceramics and possessed a surprising range of functions beyond simply acting as a headrest.

There is an old Chinese tale from around the year 800, still very well-known today, called “The Record of Inside the Pillow.” The story is about a magical traveling Daoist called Codger Lü, who stops at an inn for the night and finds himself roomed with a poor scholar who has devoted his youth to his studies in order to enter the civil service.

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The pair strike up a rapport, and the scholar ends up confessing the discontentment he is feeling about his situation in life. Glancing at his threadbare clothes, he sighs and remarks that his current lifestyle is not befitting of a scholar-gentlemen such as himself. The successful career he had envisioned was instead one of fame across the land, of banquets and fine music. He should be making a name for himself in the military and political spheres, bringing renown to his clan and providing financially for his family.

At least, that had been the plan when he devoted himself to his studies in his youth. Yet now, here he was, already a fully-grown man, unable even to afford a new set of robes to replace the ones he had worn into tatters. Having given vent to his frustrations, the scholar’s eyes glaze over as he starts to nod off.

Mysteriously, Codger Lü then reaches into his travel-bag and pulls out a pillow. His was a ceramic pillow of a greenish-blue color, hollow and rectangular with holes on either side. “Rest your head on my pillow and you’ll have that glorious life you desire,” he says, passing it over to the sleepy scholar. The scholar accepts, and to his surprise, notices an alluring brightness emanating from within the pillow. Rapidly falling asleep, he allows himself to be engulfed and sucked inside of it.

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A pillow from the Tang dynasty (618–907), roughly contemporaneous to this story. The holes mentioned in the story are clearly visible in this example. Photo by Gary Todd / Wikimedia Commons

The dream-world inside Codger Lü’s magical pillow allows the scholar to experience the high-flying career of an esteemed politician in minute detail. And, far from the wonderful life he had imagined it to be, it turns out to be full of stress and strife. With the state at war, there were enormous responsibilities to shoulder, while fame and success drew envy, false accusations and intrigue.

Having lived out an entire lifetime inside the pillow, the scholar finds himself on his deathbed. He thinks back on his ambitions as a young man and wonders why he had ever coveted such a life in the first place.

After dying in the dream, he reawakens to the inn with Codger Lü sitting by his side. Very little time had passed in reality: less time than it took the innkeeper to boil a pot of millet, as a matter of fact.

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“No way was that a normal dream!” he exclaims, as it dawns on him that it must have been induced by the Daoist’s magic. He thanks Codger Lü for showing him the realities of power and fame and the error of his ways, before heading back out on the road to his regular life.

Glazed pillow decorated with the Chinese character for “pillow” (1115–1368) – photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The moral of the story is a familiar one: one should not covet a life of fame, power and riches, because the reality may well not be all it seems and tends to carry its own set of problems and difficulties. But at the heart of the plot we find something unexpected––a hollow, porcelain pillow.

Pre-modern Chinese pillows tended to be made of hard materials like stone, ceramics or wood, which were sometimes topped with silken padding for softness. The ceramic ones––like that described in the story––were highly prized on account of their ability to stay comfortably cool on hot summer nights.

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The durability of these objects has ensured that a great many examples have survived to the present day. Best preserved are those for richer members of society. These were luxury home decor commodities which could be personalized and came in a variety of different shapes, including human figures and auspicious beasts.

Pillow in the shape of a beautiful woman (1115–1234) – photo by John Hill / Wikimedia Commons

Not all pillows were quite so decorative, however. Pillows also played a role in ritual mourning. This was a set amount of time following the passing of a parent which the filial son observed by wearing simple attire and forgoing luxury, enjoyment and comfort. One of the various types of ritual paraphernalia used in this period was a special pillow called a zhenkuai, or “pillow-block”, which was basically a hard, earthen brick used to avoid too comfortable of a night’s sleep.

Pillow decorated with inscriptions (1115–1234) – photo by Gary Todd / Wikimedia Commons

On a similar note, there is also the famous sleeping habit of Sima Guang (1019–1086), a civil servant who lived just the kind of high-flying political career the young scholar in the story had dreamed of. A hard-working, busy man who served throughout decades of all-consuming political U-turns, Sima Guang opted to shun porcelain pillows altogether, instead resting his head against a cylindrical one fashioned from a log. The idea was that the log-pillow would roll away whenever he stirred in his sleep, thereby removing any temptation to sleep in. To Sima, work, in this case the writing of a landmark piece of Chinese historiography, was much more important than rest. It seems that there was indeed some real-life substance to Codger Lü’s warning.

Likeness of Song dynasty scholar-official Sima Guang (1019–1086) – Wikimedia Commons

Ceramic pillows came to have many functions and uses beyond headrests and home decorations. The fact that they were hollow, combined with their proximity to the owner’s head made them an obvious place to hide one’s most treasured or valuable possessions, particularly when on the road, like in the story. After all, it is pretty difficult to steal something out of a pillow without waking the person asleep on top of it, as any parent whose children have heard of the tooth fairy will know well.

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Pillow decorated with the image of a boy fishing (960–1279) – photo by Gary Todd / Wikimedia Commons

The story of Lü the Codger, Sima Qian’s log-pillow, and the emergence of mourning pillow-blocks all demonstrate how the pillow was symbolic of the idea of comfort in life, both physical and mental, be that something desirable or to be shunned in favor of hard work or filial piety.

But sometimes, no matter how luxurious the pillow, it would prove impossible to sleep. For my previous Medievalists.net article which explores insomnia in pre-modern Chinese poetry, see “The insomniac poets of medieval China”.

Another function of pillows like these was keeping elaborate hairstyles in place. For more on that, see the below video from the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

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