Thousands of years ago, Chinese people realised that nothing on the earth lasts forever, including human life. Having the perfect pillow was a way to improve sleep and reach a grand old age. But there’s more to sleep than health, and sleep traditions show many aspects of Chinese culture, from studying to falling in love.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recommends ways to extend life span and keep healthy, such as diet, meditation, acupuncture, moxibustion, massage and sleep. Qi, Blood and Jing Essence, are considered the basic elements of human bodies in TCM, and during sleep, Qi and Blood made during the day transforms and becomes Jing Essence. This manuscript recommends a position to strengthen Qi.
The Taoist sage, Sun Simiao 孙思邈, who lived in the Tang Dynasty (618 AD–907 AD) was known as the King of Medicine in China. He introduced methods to help people fall asleep in his book ‘Qian Jin Yao Fang’ 千金要方. He wrote that: “being a bit drunk, sleeping alone, a soft pillow, and warm feet help to calm the heart and then people could fall asleep.” 半醉酒，独自宿，软枕头，暖盖足，能息心，自瞑目。
Although Sun Simiao suggested a soft pillow for a good sleep, people often slept on hard pillows made from materials such as bronze, earthenware and wood. In the heat of summer, bamboo pillows and ceramic pillows could cool down the head. The image shown is of a bamboo pillow.
Not everyone preferred hard pillows: some people complained that ceramic was too cold to sleep on. But sometimes, cutting short sleep was desirable. In the Song Dynasty (960AD–1279AD), scholar and politician Sima Guang 司马光, who is famous for the book ‘Zi Zhi Tong Jian’ 资治通鉴, took advantage of cold ceramic pillows to wake himself up early in the morning so that he would have more time for study.
Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that ageing consumes Yin and thus there is an excess of Yang in the body, causing insomnia. Lily root could be used to treat insomnia and sleep disturbed by dreams.
Not all dreams were considered disturbing. The Gaotang Dream 高唐梦 was particularly pursued by Chinese male scholars: in Gaotang Dreams, they could have romantic encounters with fairy ladies. Good ceramic pillows were thought to help a sleeper find love in their dreams. This ceramic pillow is in the shape of a girl and has the inscriptions 风花雪月, which is a phrase describing romantic love.
Cai Jitong 蔡季通, a scholar in the Song Dynasty, suggested that calming down the mind was the key to falling asleep in his text ‘Knacks for Sleep’ 睡诀. Overthinking and overexcitement of the mind are linked with the activeness of Yang, which could keep one from sleeping. This image is a portrait of Fu Hsi, the father of the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang.
Since nothing is immutable, Traditional Chinese Medicine is not fixed – and the ideal pillow type has changed over time too. While ceramic pillows were widely used in the Song Dynasty, from the Qing Dynasty (1644 AD–1911AD) they were used less. This painting is from the Qing Dynasty and depicts an old Chinese man holding a soft pillow ready to drift off to a pleasant and dreamy sleep.
About the author
Yiling Zhang is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota with a specialisation in dress, history and culture. She received a Design Graduate Fellowship at the university to pursue her research interests in fashion in China and everyday dress. She holds an MA from the Royal College of Art, after studying Design History and Material Culture at the college and the Victoria and Albert Museum.