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August 2, 2009

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Dreaming on porcelain

THE Chinese character for pillow contains the "wood" (木) radical, suggesting pillows were initially made of wood at the time Chinese writing was invented. Later, grain husks and other padding were used as filling for more comfort.

As ceramic making became widespread, craftsmen also created pottery and porcelain pillows. The earliest of this kind can be traced to the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) and the tradition continues to this day.

Some old books described the benefits of porcelain pillows as "smooth and cool like jade, keeping the mind fresh and sharp;" "good for the eyes ... even in old age you can still read fine scripts;" "capable of preventing senile dementia;" "popular among both the poor and the rich, even used by those living in the royal palace."

Not just for sleep, porcelain pillows are also seen as art pieces, involving painting, poetry and sculpture. The earliest ceramic pillows were small in size. During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, pillows became bigger, some being 50 centimeters wide, and took various shapes. Many were designed like a child lying prostrate, the back forming a sloping curve for the nape.

Shanghai Museum displays a Song Dynasty porcelain pillow in the shape of a house. The intricate, open-work carving shows details of traditional Chinese architecture and a man standing in the half-open door. This white glazed porcelain pillow is a rare antique made in Jingdezhen, the famous porcelain town in today's Jiangxi Province.

A great number of ceramic pillows were made as burial objects and have survived the ravages of time.


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