China, Travel

Not Just a Pillow

We visited the Southern Yue King Mausoleum in Guangzhou over the weekend. The Nanyue was an ancient kingdom, established in 204 BC, of which present-day Guangdong province comprises a significant part. The tomb of one of the kings was discovered and made into a very nice museum. Also in the museum was a collection of ceramic and porcelain pillows, carefully collected and then donated to the museum by a Hong Kong couple.

I can’t imagine being a porcelain pillow collector and I must admit that I entered the museum with a slightly derisive smile lurking in the corner of my mouth. Oh, yes. The pillow exhibit. Must see this!

Not only does collecting of pillows seem a bit like collecting footstools or chamberpots, but the use of a porcelain pillow sounds like the closest possible thing to torture. However, the average pillow in the collection was actually quite nicely painted with animals, flowers, and sometimes children. (Children are restful?) The designs were attractive and I found myself enjoying the exhibit far more than I expected to. The pillows forced me to put aside my derision. I was won over.

One pillow in particular featured a poem which postively delighted me. My delight was such that I took the entire poem down into the notepad feature of my Kindle, key by tiny key. It was just too good to leave behind.

To read this poem is to become a porcelain pillow convert.

Here is the pillow
Made in the style of the Emperor of Shen Nong,
Incorporating elements of the ancient past
And produced in the region on Xiangzhou.
Meeting precisely the potters’ standards
It shares the perfection of the universe
And accords with the pattern of creation.
It has the luster of the precious jade,
But avoids the ostentation of brocades.
Clay was thrown on the wheel to made the biscuit,
Shaped in a rectangle and made hollow within,
Coming from the kilns of emperors of Yu and Shun on the riverbanks
It is completely free of blemishes
As the extinguishing of the vigorous and steady
Flame of Boyi was precisely timed,
Having come from the hands of poet.
It is proudly placed in the chamber of books.
It makes precious coral artifacts look vulgar
And decorative amber items appear philistine.
At a distance it captures the attention
And at close quarters it dazzles the eyes.
He would never exchange it even for a massive jade disc,
Nor would he sell it for myriad taels of gold.
Placed in a pouch of finest brocades from SiChuan,
Within a box made of hardwood from Yuzhang.
It is stored likes precious jade
And handled with the utmost care.
In the hottest season of the year,
The heat rages to the nine heavens.
In the northern studio the guest bed has been prepared
And as the southern wind blows against the bamboo bed
The poet falls fast asleep.
His body and soul enjoying the blissful cool
Deep in sleep his mind is at ease
While in his dreams his desires are fulfilled.
It is as if he is strolling in pavilions on the moon
Or sauntering in an icy grotto.
He suddenly awakes to find his white hair again dry
And the burning heat dispersed.
This brings to mind the diligent scholars of old
Who used a round tree trunk as their pillow
And Confucius who slept on his folded elbow.
If we are to fully appreciate this ancient ware of Shen Nong,
How can we simply regard it as a means to avoid
The discomforts of the summer heat?

My favorite lines are It shares the perfection of the universe/ And accords with the pattern of creation. When the heat soon “rages to the nine heavens,” I believe it would be wise of me to turn to a porcelain pillow. So that I too can have all my desires fulfilled and stroll on the moon.

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