Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Fabulous Porcelain Bed -- a Legend From Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

Long, long ago, some emperor sent an imperial edict to the famed porcelain potters of Jingde Town: "Make me a bed of your porcelain ware that will keep me cool in the summer and warm in the winter. You have one year's time upon receiving my command."

There was also an additional comment: "Failure to meet the deadline will result in death."

Minister Qin, a venal court high official, personally delivered the imperial message.

It was clearly an impossible task, but what could the good porcelain makers of Jingde Town do? They got started--that's what they did! If the project failed, would one be singled out for execution? a pair? a whole clan of potters? They didn't know, so the whole town of potters got together as one team to produce this porcelain bed demanded by the emperor back in Yanjing.

They constructed a bed of fine unburnt clay and loaded it into a big kiln. They then watched and waited . . .

When the time was up, they took the bed out. It was a total failure: the bed had failed to be baked evenly!

They started over and created a new unbaked porcelain bed. The result was the same--again, again, and again.

To make matters worse, Minister Qin and his retinue continued to stay in town, making the rounds, demanding to be treated to wine and food by each family of porcelain makers. The overtaxed townspeople put up with him, for one word of complaint, just one sneeze the wrong way, would be enough for him to send a note back to the emperor about the "rebellious peasants."

Now just outside of town was an old experienced but retired potter. It was said that if he created a porcelain bird, it would fly and chirp! That was his reputation. A delegation of people from town made the trek to his home.

"Master!" the spokesman for the group said to the old potter on his front porch. "Surely you've heard that the emperor has commanded us to create a porcelain bed for him that will keep him cool in the summer and warm in the winter. If we fail to do so within the year, we die. We've tried and tried and can't get it right! Please help us!"

For the longest time, the old man said nothing. Then he sighed and motioned for the twenty or so people to follow him into his modest house.

The group entered the house and looked on in shock: there in the house were a number of porcelain beds unable to be baked and tempered. The old master had also been trying to create a porcelain bed but to no avail.

They thanked the old man for trying to do his part. Then, spiritless, the group turned around and trudged out the house in silence.

The old potter then decided he would commit himself to finding a way to make a successfully baked porcelain bed. He went back to work, not stopping for rest or food.


He turned around. His only daughter, a beautiful young girl, was standing behind him.

"Please get some rest and food to eat! I am worried about you."

"No, Daughter. Papa has to work and find a way to bake the porcelain bed!"

Now one day, the daughter fell asleep while sitting by the kiln. She then had a dream. In the dream, a very old white-bearded man came up to her from behind and tapped her shoulder.


"Do you want your daddy to find a way to make a porcelain bed?"

"Yes, I do!" she replied in the dream.

"Well, I know of a way! Shall I tell it to you?"

"Please tell me!"

"Very well. The next time you load the kiln with a bed of unburnt clay, you must enter the kiln as well and be fired along with the bed. Are you afraid to die?"


"Can you then enter the flames of the kiln along with the bed?" asked the mysterious old stranger.

"Yes, I can!"

The old potter saw his daughter talk in her sleep by the kiln. When she awoke, he asked her about it.

"What were you shouting about, Daughter?"

"Father, do you have another bed ready for the kiln?"

"Yes. Why?"

"The bed can be fired today, successfully."

"Are you still talking in your sleep?"

"Father! Is there a bed ready or not?"

"Yes, yes, there is, for what good it will do! Feel the heat. There's one in the kiln right now."

The girl leaped to her feet and ran into her room. She emerged not long after, clad in a new flowery dress, her hair combed and brushed, with sweet oil applied. She approached the front of the kiln.

"Daddy!" she cried and then plunged right into the mouth and flames of the kiln.

The fire inside than surged upwards and outwards, burning bolder and redder than before.

The old man couldn't believe his eyes and sprang forward to the kiln, too late.

"My daughter . . . my daughter . . . "

When the bed was brought out to cool, it was discovered the firing had been absolutely successful. The curled dragon motif on the bed was said to be able to move its tail, while the inlaid phoenix motif could supposedly flap its wings.

Minister Qin thus took possession of the bed and had it loaded aboard a ship bound for the North. He daydreamed about the emperor ennobling him, granting him vast tracts of land. In his eagerness to return to the imperial palace, he ordered the captain to go full speed ahead, ignoring cautions.

The ship entered the waters of Poyang Lake, Jiangxi. Right in the middle of the lake, a sudden electrical storm arose, flinging its lightning bolts down to earth. One bolt hit the bed, secured on top of the ship, shattering it into hundreds of shards, piercing Minister Qin, causing him to bleed from "the seven orifices." He fell down dead amongst the remnants of the porcelain bed.

It is said that to this day the grateful pottery families of Jingde Town all have beautiful images of the master potter's daughter placed on their own kilns.


from Jia & Sun, Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, Vol. 1, pp. 114-117. (For full citation , see 7/22/07.)

This story is a variation of another that long ago appeared in English: "The Voice of the Bell" from The Sunken City and Other Tales From Round the World by James McNeill (New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1975; pp. 132-137), originally a reprint of a British book published in 1959. In this version, Kuan-yu, minister to the historical Ming Emperor Yung-lo (Yongle) (1360-1424 A.D.) is ordered to cast a huge bell the peals of which should be heard for many miles around. After two attempts at casting the bell, Emperor Yung-lo sends word he will not tolerate any more failure upon pain of death. In the end, Kuan-yu's daughter Ko-ngai, inspired by the words of a fortuneteller, jumps into the cauldron to enable the bell to be cast successfully and to save her father's head.

Mr. McNeill's version is beautifully told, as are all the other tales in his anthology. I heartily recommend his book if you can be lucky enough to find a copy.

"Jingde Town" is Jingdezhen, a world-famous location for fine porcelain china.

Porcelain pillows first appeared during the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.), but I haven't been able to find any citations about entire porcelain beds as either actual or legendary objects.

Foundation myths and legends suggest that a landmark (i.e., bridge, building) for some reason required a human sacrifice embedded within or otherwise melded or contained within the landmark in order for it, the landmark, to exist or to be sustained. In McNeill's version as well as this one, a beautiful girl (i.e., a virgin) willingly immolates herself to allow, respectively, a bell to peal more sweetly or a porcelain bed to contain the needed essence of goodness and chastity that would befit such a marvelous creation from which much is to be expected.

The Chinese title refers to the "longfeng porcelain bed," longfeng, "dragon and phoenix," being a metaphor for "conjugal."

For another story in which a girl sacrifices herself so that others may live, see the Hezhen story "The Stone Girl," 2/13/08.

The grisly bleeding "from the seven orifices" is heavenly retribution, according to Chinese folklore, supposedly reserved for those --typically, high officials--who had committed evil in their lifetimes and may have covered it up.

Motifs: D1810.8.2, "Information received through dream"; S261, "Foundation sacrifice"; W28, "Self-sacrifice."

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