A Pillow Full of Dreams
There was once a scholar who was on his way to the capital of China to sit for his examination conducted by the imperial court . One day, he arrived in Han Dan, a small town near to the capital in the north of China. He decided to settle at a small tavern for a day. It was summer, and he ordered for a bowl of millet for his lunch. While waiting for the innkeeper to do the cooking, he felt sleepy. Suddenly, an old man approached him, and passed him a porcelain pillow to rest on. Porcelain pillow was very common and popular in the northern area of China during summer time as porcelain is cool and looks pleasing to the eyes. The Scholar fell asleep immediately, and dreamt that he passed the examination and was appointed as a very high ranking official. He got the favor of the emperor, who married his daughter, the princess, to him. He was well respected and accumulated a lot of wealth, and got himself many concubines. He even took over the throne to rule the country upon the demise of the emperor. With the passing of age, he turned old and weak. Finally, he was overthrown by his own son,and his wife, the queen betrayed him, and all concubines left him in the lurch. He was imprisoned and tortured by the prison officers mentally and physically. He was finally sent to the killing field for beheading, and when the saber was about to fall on his head, he yelled in fright. At this moment, he woke up from the terrible dream, and found that the millet porridge was just cooked and placed in front of him. This landed him in a deep thought. He felt that the old man should be an immortal from the heaven who came to drop him this hint that life is something like a dream. For a short period of your life time, you may enjoy all the goodies and happiness, but by a twinkling of an eye, all these would end in nowhere. He therefore decided to forgo this examination but travel all over the places to seek solace and freedom. The porcelain pillow he used was a product of Ci Zhou ware, a folk ware which was widely fired and produced in the Song dynasty eight hundred years ago. Ci Zhou is within a stone's throw from Han Dan where the story took place.
My friend bought a Ci Zhou pillow depicted with floral designs in black iron oxide pigment from the Macau smugglers. The price is high as Ci Zhou pieces are the favourite of Japanese and European collectors for its wild and free hand drawing styles. The wares, such as bowls, vases, and especially pillows are so indigenous and unique by itself that it is exuberant with vigor and natural beauty.
Unfortunately, after purchasing this pillow for
more than ten years, this friend of mine became suspicious and doubtful
of the authenticity of his most treasured pillow. As usual, he passed the
pillow to me for study. I made a thorough check and broke the bad news
to him: it is a fake!
Ci Zhou pieces were covered with a layer of white slip, as the clay was impure with a tinge of brown or grey mixture scattering in the body. The human figures or floral sprays were drawn direct over the slip surface with a black pigment, and subsequently applied with a layer of glassy glaze to protect the color from contamination or faded away after prolonged contact with air. Basically, this method is similar to that used on Chang Sha ware. After the firing, the contrast between the white ground and the black drawing was so strong that the drawing stands out brilliantly and is eye catching. The specific features of this ware is that the drawings would not fade or wear out and the color remained intact through many centuries. In fact, the Ci Zhou wares was the source of inspiration for the underglaze blue and white drawings produced in the Yuan dynasty.
Now back to the pillow owned by my friend. The
pillow is in the form of a trapezoid cube, with the upper surface curving
in downwards as a headrest. The loophole is that the flowers and
leaves are painted in black over the glaze surface. There is an easy way
to detect this by the use of a normal magnifying glass. Alas! You will
find crackles like the cobweb spread and run all over the black pigment.
In the genuine pieces, you can only see tiny bubbles over the underglaze
The brush strokes are weak and restrictive as a copying work, and obviously, a Chinese brush was used as the painting tool. As a traditional practice, the potters in the Song period would use a bamboo stick split at the tip as a brush to "splash" the pictures over the white slip surface.
The glaze of this fake pillow can be seen as being loosely held to the body, whereas in the genuine pieces, the glaze is almost fused with the clay, so much so that you could not differentiate the slip layer from it.
Also observe the texture of the paste of
a genuine piece. The body is rather porous and coarse, yet it is hard and
solid. In Song dynasty, the potters would do refining work on the
completed pieces when they were still in a half dry state. This explains
why the Ci Zhou wares had sharp and crisp outline around the edges at the
rim of the foot and mouth. However, if you touch the unglaze base
of this fake pillow, it is smooth and is very even.
It is wise for the Chinese to paint the pictures under the glaze, or else those who sleep on it may need a lot of shampoo to wash their hair frequently. Worst still, the dirty pillows have to be discarded after a short time, and this is against the thrifty principle among the ancient Chinese eight hundred years ago.
So before you go ahead to buy a Ci Zhou pillow
for collection, please raise your cotton stuffed pillow high and make some
sweet dreams. With the vividness and energy after a good sleep, do sufficient
home works and consult the experts so as not to fall in the trap of those
unscrupulous antiques maniacs!