Why Do the Chinese Sleep on Hard Pillows?

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Pillows are an essential part of our sleeping experience, and the type of pillow we use can significantly affect the quality of our sleep. While most people around the world use soft pillows, the Chinese have a unique preference for hard pillows.

In Chinese culture, such pillows are not only used for sleeping but are also seen as a symbol of a strong and resilient character. Some people in the country believe that sleeping on a hard pillow can benefit their health, improve their overall well-being, and promote good dreams.

While some may find it uncomfortable, many Chinese people swear by the benefits. In fact, these pillows, made of materials such as wood, bamboo, metal, clay, jade, or ceramics, have been used in Chinese culture for centuries.

In this article, we will explore the reasons behind the Chinese preference for hard pillows.

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History of Hard Pillows in China

The use of hard pillows in Chinese culture dates back to the Sui Dynasty (581 to 618 CE). During this time, the Chinese believed that sleeping on such pillows could help prevent snoring and reduce the risk of respiratory diseases.

These pillows were mostly box-shaped with a flat or concave surface where the head and neck could rest. Every such pillow reflected fine craftsmanship and was stylized with intricate designs.

These pillows were also believed to improve blood circulation and provide support to the neck and spine, preventing stiffness and soreness.

The Chinese also believe that sleeping on a hard surface can strengthen one’s willpower and character, which is why such pillows are often used as a metaphor for mental and emotional fortitude.

It is to be noted that not everyone was gung-ho about sleeping on hard pillows, especially those made of ceramic and bamboo. These materials were too cold to be slept on. However, some would use them for exactly the same reason.

Scholar and politician Sima Guang of the Song Dynasty (960AD–1279AD), for instance, was all for sleeping on a ceramic pillow because its coldness would help him wake up early in the morning and he would thus have more time for study.

Guang is known for his book Zizhi Tongjian – a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography.

Cultural Significance of Hard Pillows in China

Hard pillows were decked up and shaped in different symbolic forms, especially among the elite and wealthier classes. These specially molded pillows were seen as a status symbol of the sign of prosperity. 

Flowers, butterflies, landscapes, Mandarin ducks, plants, and children were common images, which marked these pillows as something auspicious.

They were often used as wedding gifts. Some pillows even came with inscriptions of Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucius teachings to remind the sleeper to practice good behavior and moral values.

To maximize the potential of hard pillows, some people even decorate them with special motifs to ward off bad dreams and evil spirits. Often, lions, tigers, phoenixes, and Chinese dragons would be painted onto them to keep the evil away. This power was something soft pillows lacked.

In fact, some hard pillows were even made in the shape of these animals. The lion, for instance, was regarded as a symbol of ferocity and strength. Hence, sleeping on hard pillows shaped in the form of a lion was thought to boost one’s spiritual energy.

Presumed Health Benefits of Sleeping on a Hard Pillow

Sleeping on hard pillows is believed to offer several health benefits, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Improved posture
  • Reduced neck and back pain
  • Improved respiratory health
  • Prevention of snoring
  • Prevention of headache
  • Prevention of sleep apnea
  • Improved eyesight
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Extended life span

Hard pillows are firmer than soft pillows and are thought to provide more support to the neck and spine, promoting better alignment and reducing strain on these areas. By reducing strain and pressure, these pillows are believed to further prevent headaches and other discomforts.

Additionally, sleeping on hard pillows has been associated with promoting better breathing by keeping the airways open and preventing snoring. This is because these pillows do not compress like soft pillows, which can cause the airways to collapse and obstruct breathing during sleep.

This can be especially beneficial for people with sleep apnea or other respiratory conditions. Similarly, hard pillows have also been associated with improved eyesight, reduce blood pressure, and an overall grand, long life.

However, note that no scientific evidence is currently available to back up such beliefs and assumptions.

Chinese Medicine and Hard Pillows

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also advocates for the use of hard pillows for promoting better health and well-being. According to TCM, sleeping on hard pillows can stimulate acupressure points in the neck and head, promoting blood circulation and balancing the body’s energy.

The firmness of hard pillows can also provide therapeutic benefits for conditions such as migraines, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions. TCM opines that the Yin-Yang balance changes with age, with Yin being consumed rapidly and Yang being in access in the body. This imbalance causes insomnia and disturbed sleep, which can be treated by sleeping on hard pillows.

TCM tasks about another benefit, which is rather interesting. A good solid pillow made of ceramic is thought to help sleepers find love in their dreams. This pillow, however, has to be molded in the shape of a girl with 风花雪月 inscribed on it. This inscription is a phrase referring to matters of love between men and women.

Because these pillows were hollow on the inside, they were often filled with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, which were thought to relax the mind and promote good sleep. With the rise of opium usage in the country, addicts filled their pillows with the drug to induce sleep.

Tangible Benefits of Sleeping on a Hard Pillow

The health benefits of sleeping on hard pillows might not have any substantial scientific proof. However, there were some clear advantages, which only these pillows could provide.

For instance, education was much-valued at that time and a hard pillow could help students to focus on their studies instead of dozing off. Additionally, such pillows could help preserve the highly ornate hairstyles of that era, which consumed a lot of time.

Also, the Chinese of that period perceived oversleeping as a vice, which could be mitigated with the help of a hard pillow. Last but not least, the hollow pillows served as a great way to hide secret objects, especially at night. There was no way to steal such objects without waking up the owner.

Comparison With Other Cultures

While the use of hard pillows is prevalent in Chinese culture, other cultures around the world have their unique preferences for pillows.

In Japan, for example, people often use buckwheat pillows, which are firm and provide support to the neck and spine. In Korea, people use traditional wooden pillows, which are also firm and provide support to the neck and spine.

In the Western world, soft pillows are more commonly used for sleeping, providing a plush and comfortable experience. However, there is a growing trend towards using more supportive pillows, such as memory foam pillows, which provide similar benefits to hard pillows.

Decline in Usage

The idea of pillows in China has changed over time. Hard pillows, which were widely used in the Sui Dynasty, continued in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 CE) and the Five Dynasties Period (907 to 960 CE)

The pillows saw their peak during the Song (Sung) Dynasty (960 to 1279) when porcelain production was at its zenith. Their use continued in the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368) and even in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).

However, in the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1644 to 1912), their usage significantly declined as porcelain production stopped. By this time, the Chinese had also come up with techniques to make pillows from cotton and feathers.

The use of hard pillows, especially those made of porcelain, which the Chinese thought to be white gold, was limited to upper-class people and members of the royal family. Even they put a cloth on top of the pillows to maximize their comfort.

People of the lower middle class who wanted to sleep on hard pillows continued to do so using pillows made of wood and bamboo. However, eventually, the tradition died out and hard pillows were replaced by their softer, more comfortable peers from the West.

The Downside of Sleeping on Hard Pillows

Despite the long history and cultural significance, the Chinese hard pillow comes with a significant downside: sleeping on it can cause auricular pseudocysts of the ear pinna, which is uncommon, but typically painless and a benign noninflammatory swelling.

This has also been mentioned in the research paper “Treatment of Auricular Pseudocyst with Intralesional Steroid: A Study with Short-Term Follow-Up” published in the peer-reviewed medical journal ‘Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology.’

To conclude, the Chinese preference for hard pillows is deeply rooted in their culture and history, with many believing that sleeping on hard surfaces can promote better health and strengthen one’s character.

While hard pillows may not be suitable for everyone, they are believed to provide several benefits, such as improving posture, reducing neck and back pain, and preventing snoring.

Whether you prefer a soft or hard pillow, choosing the right type of pillow for your individual needs is essential for getting a good night’s sleep and maintaining overall health and well-being.

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