Crowing Rooster Pillows

I hesitated when Countess Laurel Gwen, Meridies, put out the call for participants in a medieval effigy project. My concerns about my own participation were related to cultural appropriation – because I’d be not only showcasing the material culture of a culture that I have no personal ties to, and which my own ethnicity/nationality (White American whose ancestors immigrated from Europe before the Revolutionary War) have a history of marginalizing, but also recreating an image of that culture’s burial practices. After some research and reassurance, I decided to go ahead.

Enter the roosters.

The 鸡鸣枕, ji ming zhen, or “crowing rooster pillow” is often seen in Chinese burials from the SCA period. The Yingpan man’s head rests on one, and we have examples of these pillows from the Eastern Han Dynasty through the Tang Dynasty. I had decided to try and stick to the Astana finds in Turpan (link goes to an image of one of the mummies with might be a reconstructed pillow), so I knew I had to make a rooster pillow.

Since this was a side project while I was (and am) prepping for my vigil and elevation, I didn’t dive as deep as I eventually will into this particular item and use in Han Chinese death practices during the Tang Dynasty. I dug around and looked at images and tried to recreate something that looked and functioned like what I saw, using materials and methods I knew to be known and used in that period. (Sadly, this appears to be one of those topics that doesn’t have any good English-language articles/write-ups, which means the research will be slow-going.)

The extant pillows I can find vary in shape, but all have a similar silhouette – two heads, joined pushmi-pullyu style onto one body. Many of the extant pillows have coxcombs and waddles, though some do not. It’s difficult to say if these smaller pieces of silk were absent, or just deteriorated and separated from the main body of the pillow.

 The Ming Pillow of the Eastern Han Dynasty unearthed from the Niya Husband and Wife Tomb in Minfeng County in 1959 (pictures provided by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum)
A pillow from the Eastern Han Dynasty, unearthed from the Niya husband and wife Tomb in Minfeng County in 1959 (picture by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum).
A crowing rooster pillow from the Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE).

I still have some of the 24″ wide brocade I used for my banbi, so I decide to use some of it for my rooster. After sketching out a basic shape, adjusting for stuffing deterioration, I cut out two pieces from the brocade for the sides of the rooster, and a third gusset piece for the bottom, since so many appear to be able to sit flat. This also allows for more stuffing to be put into the pillow.

I sewed the pieces together with a backstitch, and used some green felted wool for the comb, held within the seam. I also made two tassels out of yellow silk embroidery floss and inserted it so that it would hang from the end of the beak, like some of the extants show. After it was sewn up, I turned it right-side out and ironed it. I have what feels like a bottomless bag of Tunis wool that was given to me years ago, which I used to stuff the pillow. Once stuffed, I turned in the edges of the opening and stitched it closed.

After the pillow aspect of the rooster was done, I focused on embellishment. My rooster needed eyes and a waddle. Going off of the Jin Dynasty extant, I used yellow silk and jade beads for the eyes, and yellow silk and green silk for the waddle, which were half circle pieces.

The finished pillow.

This was a fun project, because aside from the green wool (I don’t have really any wool), everything I used was already in my supply/scraps bin – and most of it was scraps. The whole thing came together in only a couple of days, and if I had chosen to start it on a weekend, I probably could have easily finished it in one day.

The finished pillow.

So now I have a crowing rooster pillow, which I’m fully expecting my 2 year-old to try and claim as her own.

She says it is a dragon.

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The History Girls: CROSS YOUR LEGS AND HOPE TO DIE: What those effigies are really telling you by Elizabeth Chadwick

The History Girls: CROSS YOUR LEGS AND HOPE TO DIE: What those effigies are really telling you by Elizabeth Chadwick

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