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Tiger Pillow

Tigers were popular Daoist images, used on decorative folding screens and scroll paintings.
Japan, Tiger, about 1560, ink on paper

Many animals hold symbolic meaning. The deer decorating this pillow is an emblem of good luck and longevity.
China, Pillow, Song dynasty (960-1279), stoneware with painted decoration on white slip under a clear glaze

The peony, a common design on Chinese pillows, symbolizes wealth, spring, and feminine beauty.
China, Pillow, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), stoneware with black and white slips and sgraffito decoration under transparent glaze

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Signs and Symbols

The butterfly and flower designs on the top of this pillow may have had symbolic meaning, or perhaps they simply suggested the sweet dreams of peaceful sleep. The tiger, though, has a clear history of symbolism.

The tiger was an important symbol in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism (DOW-ism). Taoism explains the world in terms of two opposite forces: yin (from the ancient Chinese word for “shady”) and yang (from the word for “bright”). Yin includes darkness, water, wind, and the earth. Yang includes light, fire, rain, and the heavens. Yin is passive, while yang is active. According to this philosophy, everything in the universe results from the interaction of yin and yang. The dragon, a mythical animal thought to rule the heavens, stands for yang. The tiger, considered the mightiest animal on earth, stands for yin.

Tigers and dragons were popular subjects for paintings at the time this pillow was made. As a symbol for yin (darkness and inactivity and the west, where the sun sets), the tiger may have seemed an especially good form for a pillow. A tiger pillow scared off evil influences as a person slept. Children’s pillows—often not ceramic but made of cotton or silk stuffed with grain husks—frequently took the form of a tiger, to protect the child from demons that cause nightmares.

January 2007