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! 

the fake Ci Zhou pillow
the hole on the right corner

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 drawing.
weak floral drawing with conweb marks

black pigment drawing on genuine sherd

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.
smooth and even paste on bottom of fake pillow

coarse but solid paste on a Ci Zhou sherd
The small vent hole at the bottom edge of the pillow was pierced for the firing in order to prevent an explosion of the clay due to high temperature in the kiln. The vent  holes were usually dug out at the back of the piece so that they could be hidden away when displayed for aesthetic reason. Whereas in this piece of pillow, we see the vent hole at the front portion. We also can see carving lines surrounding the floral sketch in the shade of a medallion. The lines are too artificial and cut out by a sharp metal object that spoil the overall presentation.

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!

Written by: 
Mr Lim Yah Chiew, Singapore,
(12 February 2001)