Saturday, March 19, 2005

Pillow worlds

It took me a stupidly long time to realise that the British Museum is just down the street from my Hebrew class, and open late on the relevant evening. One of the best things about living in London is that the major museums are free and you can pop in for a few minutes any time you like. Often in those few moments you can find something that will transform your day.

Last week I was browsing in the Asian rooms and was struck by something particularly charming -- a ceramic pillow from the Tang Dynasty whose base was carved into a scene from Shen Jiji's tale 'The Pillow.' (I have found different translations of the title -- the Chinese seems to be Zhen Zhong Ji, or 枕中記. Likewise, the author's name gets spelled in different ways, but the Chinese characters are 沈既濟.) This is the story of a man who dreams an entire life, in which he becomes the ruler of a strange kingdom. According to, the tale is the source of a Chinese idiom still used today:

Golden millet dream (黄粱美梦)—dream full of fantasy.

The allusion comes from a romance entitled Stories Telling on the Pil-lows by Shen Jiji in the Tang Dynasty.

"Once there was a boy named Lu Sheng. Although born in a poor fami-ly, he yearned all day long for fame, property and ranks of a general or a min-ister. One day when he lodged in an inn in Handan , he encountered a Taoist priest, who gave him a porcelain pillow. Lu Sheng fell into asleep and dreamt as soon as he laid his head on the porcelain pillow, while the innkeeper was cooking his sorghum food. In his dream Lu Sheng married the daughter of a rich man, took up a post of minister; he finally had a large number of children and grandchildren and lived in a luxurious and majestic life. When he woke up from his dream, the innkeeper had not even made his golden millet food ready. "

Later the story is meant to satirize the nullity of fantasies and unfeasible hope. Another phrase is "golden dreams on the porcelain pillow. "

(黄粱美梦 is apparently pronounced something like 'huang liang yi meng.')

The label in the museum said that the ancient Chinese viewed pillows as the gateway to dreams and decorated them accordingly.

I may well have missed the point entirely, but I immediately began imagining how it would be if we in the West embroidered our pillowcases with the subjects of our dreams. If I had any artistic ability, I'd do it myself.


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