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A Cizhou Pillow
with Sgraffiato Double-phoenix Décor

Length: 45.0 cm. (17 3/4 in.)
Width: 33.0 cm. (13 in.)
Height: 28.0 cm. (11 in.)

Northern Song period
11th century


(NOTE: Further information is provided below the detailed images.)



This stoneware ingot-shaped pillow is a breathtaking example of a technique for producing ceramic decoration perfected by Cizhou potters during the 11th century of the Song dynasty in northern China. These craftsmen got a kick-start on what would become a stunningly creative path by mimicking the imperially sanctioned white wares of the times. They accomplished this through the application of a white-slip to mask the dark local clays from which their wares were made. This slip-coating not only produced the appearance of a “white” ware but prompted further borrowing, as in the present case, from Tang-dynasty craftsmen creating works from precious metals. The ceramic decorators reproduced the engraved, hammered, and ring-punch metalwork techniques by incising and carving through the slip (the technique termed sgraffiato) to the dark body below to form motifs and by punching tiny rings with metal, bamboo, or reed tools to fill the backgrounds. The remarkable precision apparent in the production of the rare double-phoenix design on the headrest of the pillow here and the density and intricate placement of the stamped rings forming the ground are exemplary, producing an effect that is as close to refined metalware decoration as a potter could get.

The brilliance of the 11th-century artists who created and produced such vivid and seemingly timeless works lives in those creations that have survived. Among them, of unquestionable importance, is the British Museum pillow dated by inscription to 1071 (fig. 1). The boldly carved chrysanthemum blossoms on the side and the contrasting delicate incising and ring-punching on the headrest are the hallmarks of this group produced primarily at such major centers of production as Dengfengxian and Mixian in Henan and Guantai in the heart of Cizhou production in southern Hebei province.

A bean-shaped pillow representing what must have been a very popular Northern Song period pillow form decorated with incised and ring-punch techniques is one handled by Mayuyama & Co. and published in their compendium Mayuyama Seventy Years (fig. 2). Among rare and outstanding examples of rectangular or “ingot-shaped” pillows with sgraffiato décor and with the rare double-phoenix motif is one in the former Mr. & Mrs. Yeung Wing Tak collection that has been attributed to the Chengguan kiln, Xinan, Henan province (fig. 3).


Fig. 1: Cizhou pillow dated 1071, Northern Song period, British Museum, after The World’s Great Collections: Oriental Ceramics, vol. 5: The British Museum, London, Kodansha (Tokyo, New York, San Francisco), 1976, no. 108.


Fig. 2: Cizhou pillow with single phoenix décor, Northern Song period, 11th century, after Mayuyama Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 1, no. 614.


Fig. 3: Cizhou pillow with double-phoenix decor, Northern Song period, 11th century, Museum of the Western Han Tomb of the Nanyue King, Guangzhou, after Chinese Ceramic Pillows: The Mr. & Mrs. Yeung Wing Tak Gift, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 39.

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