This precisely painted pillow illustrates the "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" (Chu-lin ch'i-hsien
). These "sages" were historical figures who lived in the environs of Lo-yang during the third century following the fall of the Han dynasty. In the popular mythology that developed around them, they became prototype symbols of scholarly resolve, Taoist reclusion, gentlemanly accomplishments and self-indulgence. The theme of the reclusive sage was repeated in literature and the visual arts throughout most succeeding dynasties. The scholarly subject matter would have been recognizable to an educated Chinese, the type of individual for whom this pillow was probably intended.
The bottom of the pillow is impressed with a seal bearing three characters which read "made by the Li family" (Li chia tsao). Rectangular pillows from Tz'u-chou with stamped or brushed inscriptions mention the Chang, Wang, Chen and Li family workshops. Based on the number of surviving pillows, the Chang family dominated the market during the thirteenth century while examples of the Li family are the most rare.