Ancient Han Dynasty Cocoon Jar with Cloud Designs, China


Cocoon jars were mingqi made for placement in tombs to comfort the deceased on their journey to the cosmos. An elixir of Immortality made from mulberry leaves or their ashes was placed inside for the deceased to drink and transmigrate into the world of the beyond like a butterfly. Ovoid in shape to resemble a silkworm cocoon, they rest on a small trumpet-shaped foot and have a narrow neck and a wide lip jutting outward at the mouth.  Painted after firing with vertical bands dividing it into panels, swirling cloud scrolls and circular “eye” motifs at each end, this beautiful vessel is in excellent condition for its age with expected paint losses, scrapes and adhesions of dirt.


Earthenware unglazed pottery cocoon jars were used extensively during the Han dynasty as mingqi, made for placement in tombs to comfort the deceased on their journey to the cosmos. These ancient-pottery vessels were ancestral objects, part of ancestor worship, made to revere and honor the deceased and fulfill filial piety, and have a ritual rather than utilitarian purpose.They were wheel made and with seamless joined parts to form their thin walled unusual shape and fired at over 1000 degrees centigrade.  As silkworm transmigration takes place in a cocoon, the idea this may work for humans was reflected in the cocoon shape, symbolic patterns on their surface and the contents they held. The clouds scroll design on their ovoid bodies was intended to evoke a state free from time, earthly limits with full access to the otherworld and was similar to images found in  Han poetry of the afterlife: ultimate freedom among the clouds and “cloud chariots” departed souls could ride to soar upward to the realm of the immortals. Textiles found in Han tombs confirm that the ubiquitous silk industry whose profits fueled China as a wealthy international trader. Silk and the process by which it was made was so important, it affected Taoist and Confucian thinking and doctrines. Philosophers and alchemists closely examined silkworms’ metamorphoses, alleged silk was a byproduct of the silkworm’s diet, and concluded mulberry leaves were not only medicinal but also had life-prolonging properties that produced physical change. Ingesting liquids from mulberry leaves or its ashes was considered magical, life extending and produced the silkworm’s transformation. The deep interest in alchemy and an elixir for immortality lead alchemists to discover potions to prolong life indefinitely; to write poetry about immortal afterlife like the collection and to placed cocoon jars as containers with transformative designs with magical mixtures in tombs for the souls of the departed to drink.


Additional information

Place of Origin



Ancient, Han Dynasty


206 BCE-220 CE

Materials and Technique


Dimensions (inches)

Ht: 11.75” W:12.25” D: 7.5”

Dimensions (metric)

Ht: 29.84cm W: 31.11cm D: 19.05


7lbs 5oz


Very good, wear consistent with age and use/no restorations/repairs

Reference Number


Shipping Box Size