By Ian Y.E. Pan, 2021
This writing is adapted from an essay I wrote for a university course on artistic traditions in China.
Ting Ware White Ceramic Pillow in The Shape of a Child
Ting Ware White Ceramic Pillow in The Shape of a Child (see Figure I), standing 18.8 centimeters tall with a base diameter of 31 by 13.2 centimeters, is currently located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The ceramic pillow, dated back to the Northern Sung period (960-1126), is yet to be identified with a known sculptor. This art piece, as speculated by historians, may have been of general use such as sleeping, instead of being made to accompany the deceased in the tomb (Reference). The child, cross-legged and casually posed, emits a life-like and pleasant emotional state towards the observer.
Fig. 1: Ceramic Pillow in The Shape of a Child
The sculpture is in phenomenal condition, despite the yellowing around the feet and head of the child. The otherwise even color scheme produces a consistent minimalist atmosphere, as if the sculptor were not trying to impress his audience with the use of vibrant colors, but rather turning the focus to the delicate craftsmanship of refined carving skills.
The ceramic pillow is semi-symmetrical, crafted along a horizontal axis running from the crown of the child’s head on the left, to its crossed feet on the right. Lying on the mattress with its stomach, the child’s arched back conveniently serves as a curve to rest the head for the owner of the ceramic pillow. The angle at which the child’s head is raised is offset by the presence of his buttocks and crossed feet on the right, jointly forming a basin-shaped form, with the lowest height in the middle, and the crowning height peaking on the two sides of the artifact.
The subject, a child lying with its stomach on a piece of mattress, bears an expression of content when viewed from a horizontal level. If viewed from a more top-inclined angle, the sculpture shows slight upward curves on both side of the child’s closed lips, appearing to be in a peaceful mood. Its likewise calm angles of eyebrows, cast only a superficial downward shadow where it meets the child’s eye lids. When inspected from a larger distance, the eyebrows are almost imperceptible, mainly since the entire artifact is of a similar off-white ivory ceramic color tone. The head of the subject is a slightly exaggerated heart shape, with pronounced top left and right corners and a relatively flatter top. The hairline is unusually receding for a young child, and one could hardly notice any hair wherever besides on both sides of its head, yielding a large portion of baldness from the forehead to the back of its head. The forehead of the subject is prominently outstanding, perhaps implying that the child is intelligent. Moreover, one observes that the earlobes are both long and thick: two traits that are especially appreciated by the ancient Chinese, with the former representing the longevity of life, and the latter denote an abundance of wealth (Asai et al, 1996).
The child has its left arm placed beneath its right chin to partially support the weight of its head and maintain the static posture. The slightly tilted head allows its neatly combed hair starting from its right temple to lightly touch the back of its left hand. The hair on both sides of its head, straight and fine, are combed backwards and downwards, appeared to have been used with a fine-tooth comb and perhaps moist or a wax-like medium. The conspicuous forehead, over-sized earlobes, calm expression, along with the atypically fine neat hair, together suggest that the child is of a well-educated and financially comfortable household.
Upon closer inspection, one can observe the intricate details and the physical accuracy that the artist applied to depicting the flesh of the child’s cheeks and chin. With the angle at which the head is tilted, the delicately minute wrinkles starting from both corners of its mouth are asymmetrical, for the gravitational force, unapparent as it may be, draws the muscles towards the bottom right chin. Similarly, the creases and folds of the child’s clothes follow a coherently natural style, denting around the stretching motions of the figure. Our subject wears a grandly detailed vest of brocade, a class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics (Shayestehfar, 2015). The vest features floral patterns on the back, incorporated with shapes of leaves and stems in the form of an ivy. The side and front are decorated with a silver-coin-like pattern. From a different perspective, the silver-coin patterns may also be interpreted as jade beads threaded with thin sharp leaves arranged in four, positioned in a sun ray alignment.
With its left arm placed under the chin, the right arm is positioned below the chest and folded under the left arm. Underneath the child’s left armpit, one notices that its right hand is holding on to a ribbon, which is connected to a sphere-shaped object. At first glance, one may reckon it is part of the decoration of the mattress the child is laid upon, but the sphere-shaped object is neither placed in the center of the mattress, nor is it a repeatable decorative pattern around the rim of the fabric case. Although the use of the object in the child’s right hand is unclear, one may reasonably believe it is a toy, perhaps with a ringing bell within the sphere. With the intricate details of the brocade patterns on the clothing, the existence of a hand-crafted toy, and an abundance of embroidery on all sides of the mattress, the artist again suggests that the household is not only well-mannered, but also wealthy to a certain extent, echoing the child’s fine-combed hair among other physical features.
Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of an Animal
Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of An Animal (see Figure 2), standing at 29.0 centimeters tall, has a length of 39.5 centimeters and a width of 14.5 centimeters. Similar to the child-shaped ceramic pillow introduced in the previous section, this bronze artifact is currently located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and its anonymous creator is also yet to be identified. The zun wine vessel is dated back to the Mid Warring State Period in ancient China, circa 4th to 3rd centuries BCE. This artifact signifies a cultural “peak in the art of bronze casting in China” (Reference), extending back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The vessel is of the shape of a “realistically depicted, sturdily standing four-legged hoofed animal” (Reference). Its geometrically round eyes, long and pointy ears, plump belly, and short yet steady legs together serve both utility and decorative purposes. The lidded opening on the animal’s back is emplaced to allow wine, or any other liquid form, to be refilled. Its O-shaped mouth serves as the nozzle of the vessel, enabling a fine projection of the pouring of wine.
Fig. 2: Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of an Animal
Overall, the bronze artifact is in excellent condition, despite having slightly mottled paint in various locations. The surface of the vessel is coated with a uniform dark color, composing of black with tints of dark gold and green. On the body of the animal, one can observe barely perceptible patterns of clouds and geometric shapes. The inscribed patterns are also inlaid with gold and silver material.
The specific species of the subject is unknown. At first glance, the animal seems to be a simultaneous mixture of many creatures. Judging from the proportion of its legs, head, and body, the original animal size is likely to be depicted closer to that of a dog. However, upon closer inspection on the design of the animal’s head, one recognizes traits of an ox, especially with the wide curves around the nostrils, as well as the big round eyes. In addition, the animal’s ears bear a form indistinguishable from that of a rabbit, and a tail similar to that from a horse. Finally, the plump belly and short steady legs reminds the spectators of traits one would expect from a hippopotamus. Overall, the animal appears to be non-hostile and possibly herbivorous. The latter conclusion was drawn due to the many herbivorous animal traits one could find on the design of the zun vessel, including horse, ox, hippo, and rabbit. With the shape of the artifact, the artist was likely trying to convey a warm, friendly, and lovable atmosphere of the subject, reinforcing a pleasant feeling towards its owner while he pours divine wine out of the vessel’s body.
There are two main focal points of the zun vessel. The first one takes the form of a collar around the animal’s neck. The collar is plain and uniformly golden. When compared to other gold-painted components (for instance, the opening lid on its back, which will be discussed in later paragraphs), the golden collar suffers from the least amount of mottling. This suggests that the creator of the artifact paid extra attention when applying the molten gold around the animal’s neck, resulting in a consistent golden spread that has hardly varied through the thousands of years of preservation. Echoing the conclusion of the previous paragraph, the presence of the collar also implicitly implies that the subject is domestically tamed animal, instead of a native beast.
On the forehead of the animal, one observes studs of a brighter cyan. Similar colors can also be found near the eyebrows area and the extended cheek bones below and behind its golden eyes. The nostrils bear an unnatural inward curve, imitating the shape of clouds and resonating in concert with the patterns on its back, once again suggesting that the creature is make-believe, despite the realistic craftsmanship and depiction.
On the back of the creature is where the open lid, the second focal point of the bronze artifact, is located. The diameter is large enough for wine to be easily poured into the body of the animal for storage. There are golden engravings and silver inlays on the surface of the lid, with patterns forming a circular shape as decoration. Upon closer inspection, the pattern come together to form a shape resembling a dragon. Due to the age and perhaps the previously suboptimal preservation method of this artifact, around one-third of the decorative golden pattern on the lid is faded, revealing the brownish green of the bronze underneath. The faded golden pattern thus results in a look resembling a scorpion, instead of the original intention as a dragon.
Conclusion: A Comparison between Ting Ware White Ceramic Pillow in The Shape of a Child and Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of an Animal
The two artifacts presented in this essay, at first glance, may have little in common after all, they are made of different materials and the ceramic pillow is a much more modern work, in comparison with the bronze zun wine vessel. However, one can observe that the level of intricacy of the craftsmanship and the attention to detail especially revolving the patterns, is to some extent on par with one another. For instance, one can clearly notice the resemblance between the mattress rim of the Ting ware white ceramic pillow and the golden engravings on the opening lid of the zun wine vessel animal. In addition, both artifacts are of similar dimensions and created as utility tools, with the former serving the purpose of being used as a pillow to sleep upon, and the latter used as a wine container for social gatherings or royal events. Both the ceramic pillow and the bronze animal are mainly bearing one plain color throughout their surfaces, with exceptions found in minor details. In terms of the overall geometry of the artifacts, they are both vertically symmetrical with an arch in the middle and the ends supporting an increase in height. Finally, with the frequent use of smooth curves, both the ceramic pillow and the zun wine vessel give off a welcoming, pleasant, and almost adorable character.
Museum Introduction of Ting Ware White Ceramic Pillow in The Shape of a Child. Retrieved from: https://theme.npm.edu.tw/selection/Article.aspx?sNo=04001028&lang=2#inline_content_intro
Shayestehfar, Mahnaz. “A Comparative Study of Brocade Weaving Art Motifs and Designs in Iran and Malaysia.” In Islamic perspectives relating to business, arts, culture and communication, pp. 59-68. Springer, Singapore, 2015.
Asai, Yasuhiro, Manabu Yoshimura, Naoki Nago, and Takashi Yamada. “Why do old men have big ears? Correlation of ear length with age in Japan.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 312, no. 7030 (1996): 582.
Museum Introduction of Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of an Animal. Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/zun-vase-in-the-shape-of-an-animal/EgFJE35m6kGy1g
Museum Introduction of Zun Wine Vessel in The Shape of an Animal, 3D Modeled. Retrieved from: https://theme.npm.edu.tw/3d/Content.aspx?sno=04001143&lang=2&fromCnt=0