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Cizhou Sancai-glazed Pillow
with “Golden Lotus Banana” Plant Decor

Length: 38.1 cm. (15 in.)
Height: 13.7 cm. (5 3/8 in.)
Width: 26.7 cm. (10 1/2 in.)

Jin dynasty
Late 12th-13th century


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




The bean-shaped stoneware pillow was slip-coated with white overall, the slip brushed quite roughly on the base. Incising and combing through the slip (a technique known as sgraffiato) on the dished headrest produced the long, pointed leaves, grasses, a blossom and a pair of small birds in flight above. The scene is enclosed in a carefully articulated ogival panel against a ground of tightly curled scrolls within a bean-shaped border mimicking the shape of the pillow. In contrast, the outer frame is comprised of loose, freely incised meandering lines, the same casual approach evident in the incising of broad leaves on the sides. While the white slip under a clear colorless glaze plays an important role in the pictorial design, yellow lead glaze highlights the blossom and ogival frame and green is the color of the leaves, grasses and is the dominate color coating the upper half of the sides of the pillow.

A rather mysterious plant that produces typical banana leaves and a unique bright yellow flower head growing at the tip of what appears like a woody stem is the Golden Lotus Banana (fig. 1). We had puzzled over the identity of the yellow motif at the center of the composition here and as we were dismissing the idea of it representing a rock or a fungus, we came upon images of this extraordinary plant that grows in mountainous regions of China, a plant with all the features that are found here: the banana leaves, a tall woody stem, and the flower that is here so fancifully and delightfully represented.

At least three bean-shaped pillows have been published that are dated by inscription to the Jin dynasty in the 12th century, for example, the peony-blossom decorated pillow in the Tokyo National Museum date by ink inscription to 1156 on the base and with the typical yellow, green and white palette (fig. 2). This pillow form with simple bean-shape panel on the headrest is most commonly seen and is represented here by an example again in the Tokyo National Museum (fig. 3). The ogival frame enclosing the main décor, however, creates a further level of richness and ornamental complexity, more rarely encountered and represented here by a pillow in the Royal Ontario Museum (fig. 4) and one in Henan’s Xinxiang City Museum and presumably excavated locally (fig. 5).

The ceramic pillows found in tombs were most likely those used during the occupants’ lifetimes rather than intentionally produced to serve as funerary furniture or accoutrement. An early and still most striking proof of this was the early 20th-century discovery and excavation of Zhuluxian and Jinghexian in Hebei province inundated during the Northern Song period in 1107 by one of the Yellow River’s devastating floods. Ceramic pillows were found in locations—dwellings and what are believed to have been commercial establishments–that would point to their domestic use in the here and now. The necessity for such pillows, the long period of their production, the sprawling area of manufacture, and the market’s competitive nature explain the volume and variety of such pillows in the history of Chinese ceramic art.


Fig. 1: A Golden Lotus Banana plant, after


Fig. 2: Cizhou Sancai-glazed pillow dated 1156, Jin dynasty, Tokyo National Museum, after Sheila Riddell, Dated Chinese Antiquities 600-1650, London, 1979, fig. 30, p. 59.


Fig. 3 Cizhou Sancai-glazed pillow, Jin dynasty, Tokyo National Museum, after Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum: Chinese Ceramics: 1, Tokyo, 1988, fig. 586 p. 146.


Fig.4: Cizhou Sancai-glazed pillow, “Liao”/Jin dynasty, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, after Henry Trubner, Royal Ontario Museum: The Far Eastern Collection, Toronto, 1968, no, 78, p. 64.


Fig. 5: Cizhou Sancai-glazed pillow, Jin dynasty, Xinxiang City Museum, Henan province, after Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 450k, p. 303.


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