First manufactured in the Tang dynasty (618-907), ceramic pillows became a popular domestic item for the middle and upper classes by the Ming Dynasty. They were endowed with multiple functions, offering a cool rest for the head, to warding off evil spirits and being commonly used as burial wares. In 1591, GaoLian writes in the Zhun Shen Baijian (Eight Discourses on the Art of Elegant Living) ‘porcelain may be used to make pillows […] it has the power to brighten the eyes and benefit the pupils’. According to the same source, ceramic pillows might have brought other benefits to the user, such as gifting ‘pure and elegant dreams’.
Porcelain was at the heart of Ming Dynasty and the history of the Ming period, its raise, expansion and subsequent decline, can be traced throughout. Similar to the Renaissance in Europe, the Ming Dynasty signed a period of artistic and literary prosperity in China with porcelain being its most recognisable and admired production. A succession of seventeen emperors governed a population which saw a drastic increase during nearly 300 years of relative peace and stability. This, together with the Dynasty’s economic success, explains the culture’s artistic explosion and innovation. Innumerable kilns across China, from family workshops to factories, made a great diversity of ceramics to supply the market. At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the imperial factory was established at Jingdezhen, which, aside from supplying porcelain for domestic and court use, began large-scale production for export to Europe under the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1573-1620). In addition to the most recognisable blue and white porcelains, innovations appeared throughout the Ming Dynasty, such as doucai (鬥彩, contending colours) in the Chenghua period (成化, 1465–1488) and wucai (五彩, five-colour) in the Wanli period (萬歷, 1573–1620) among the many.