Chinese Works of Art

How to Stay Cool in the Summer, Chinese-Style

By Jennifer Huang Bernstein
As July blazes on into August, the thought of life without air-conditioning seems almost unimaginable. Yet for thousands of years in China, people have managed to beat the summer heat with practical and ingenious solutions.

Enjoying a gentle breeze

Hand fans are a time-tested way to create a bit of breeze. Beyond serving as a practical tool, fans have a long history with cultural significance. They come in many different shapes from oblong to hexagonal, and are made from various materials including bamboo, wood, paper, feather, silk or animal bone.

The round fan with its pleasant moon shape was particularly fashionable among court ladies during the Song dynasty and for centuries after. The little bit of silk stretched across the ribs also makes the perfect portable canvas for painting. This painting by Zhao Shao'ang shows an elegant scene of a cicada on bamboo – imagery evocative of the sounds and colors of summer days in the country.

Folding fans were especially favored by gentlemen, not only as a way to keep cool in the summer months, but also as an elegant vehicle to showcase painting and calligraphy. Fan painting developed into a significant and distinct genre, enjoyed by the learned as a form of scholarly exchange and expression of friendship. Some gentlemen might have collected fans as objects of contemplation and stored them in special cases, such as this Qing dynasty jimichu fan box, which would be able to hold at least 25 fans within its stacked, shallow trays and long-walled compartments.


Staying cool while sleeping

Invented in the Tang dynasty, ceramic pillows had became popular and treasured items for elite families by the Song dynasty. The hardness of the ceramic might seem uncomfortable to sleep on, but the cool touch of the material to the back of the neck would have been quite soothing on hot nights. The sturdy headrest also offers comfortable head support and would have kept complicated hairstyles worn by women from getting mussed during sleep.

The material may also bring some additional health benefits according to late-Ming scholar, Gao Lian, who wrote that the porcelain pillow "has power to brighten the eyes and benefit the pupils." He also suggested that the material and the iconography of the headrest serves a critical role in mediating between the conscious and unconscious, as dreams were believed to have significant meaning.

The Northern Song poet Zhang Lei composed a poem thanking his friend Master Huang for a green ceramic pillow:

Pillow made by Gong is strong and blue; an old friend gave it to me to beat the heat; it cools down the room like a breeze; keeping my head cool while I sleep.
Zhang Lei, Thanks to Master Huang for the Green Porcelain Pillow


Headrests could come in various form, typically rectangular or bean-shaped with a gently concave surface. Some examples come in the form of reclining figures. The pillow’s function associates it as an object of the bedroom, so the decoration would often have links to familial, domestic or even erotic themes. One rare pillow from the Northern Song / Jin dynasty is well modeled in the form of a reclining boy. He is asleep, serenely nestled beneath a large lotus leaf, the head resting on the long foliate stem. The symbolism suggests this was created for a marriage, bestowing the wish for male heirs and referencing the Song dynasty custom of children imitating fertility-cult figurines, mohele, during the Qixi (Double Seven) festival.

Pillows could be made from material such as bamboo, which functions just like the ceramic headrest. Bed mats made from woven bamboo or reed also provided smooth surfaces to keep things cool at night. These woven mats do not absorb the sleeper's body heat so they tend to be more comfortable than, say, a typical mattress. Other notable items include the “bamboo wife,” aptly named because people would sleep cuddled up around it in bed. Constructed from long strands of bamboo, the bolster is hollow and has large holes which allow for increased airflow to the torso of the curled-up sleeper.

Sipping on cold drinks

Herbal tonics help keep the body temperature down all day long. These herbal infusions are meant to cool the body and are usually are made from various dried plants available in the region — for example the perilla leaf, licorice root, wolfberry, hawthorne and mint. Sweet lotus seed or mung bean soups make for excellent summertime treats, while others prefer to sip on chilled beverages such as sour plum juice or plum wine.

Cooling herbal drinks could be kept on ice, a real luxury during the hot summer months. The example below is a Qing dynasty chest where large blocks of ice would be kept. The burl nanmu body has an interior lined with pewter, set upon a hardwood stand with hoof feet and sturdy handles for portability. The Chinese ice chest is similar in function to the vintage icebox, with a cover to control airflow and insulated with material of low heat conductivity. The hot air eventually seeps in but very slowly, allowing the ice to keep for an extended period. There are even earlier examples of these ancient refrigerators, giant bronze bing jian containers dating to the Warring States period.

Besides wood and bronze, ice chests were made of other elegant material such as this cloisonné example from the Qianlong period. This rare object, with its square section and straight sides tapering toward the base, imitates the more modest wooden prototype. Such an ice chest would have been filled with ice and used in the palace during hot weather to chill drinks and food. The ice in these ancient refrigerators would have been naturally occurring. During the winter months, officials would see to it that pieces of ice are broken up into blocks, covered with straw and stored underground until the summer, when the ice would then be taken out, divvied up and transported. Some ice chests were meant to cool the surrounding area – an air conditioner of sorts. The pierced covers allow cool air to escape, which would then be fanned into the rooms by servants.

Getting away from it all

If you were well-positioned enough to receive an allotment of ice during the hottest months of the year, then you probably had a pastoral residence or summer palace somewhere in the countryside. There you could take a break from governing and escape the stifling heat in the capital. Mild temperatures, pavilioned gardens, surrounding waters or high mountains made certain locales such as Suzhou, Chengde, Wutaishan, and Lishan particularly suitable for imperial summering.

When temperatures climbed, the Qianlong Emperor would move to one of his summer retreats, where he continued to conduct state affairs. These retreats inspired Qianlong Emperor to write poetry, including compositions headed ‘Returning by Imperial Carriage from Mulan to the Palace, on Reaching Avoiding Summer Heat Mountain Villa I Respectfully Pay my Respects and Wish the Empress Dowager Well’ and ‘Inspired by a Summer Day at the Garden of Quietude and Repose (Jingyiyuan) in the Fragrant Hills.’

On a magnificent imperial Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase, the depicted paradisaical landscape may at first appear entirely imaginary, but is probably a fairly naturalistic rendering of one of the Qianlong Emperor’s imperial retreats. For example, the famous Imperial Hunting Preserve Mulan near Chengde in Rehe was a pleasure park noted for its scenic beauty. The residence was set in wooded hills with ancient trees, dramatic rocks and a rich stock of stags and deer. Similarly, the enchanting scene from the vase shows gamboling deer and wandering cranes, set in a landscape with dramatic rock formations, ancient gnarled pine trees and misty mountain peaks in the distance.

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