Incense in China is traditionally used in a wide range of Chinese cultural activities including religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, traditional medicine, and in daily life. Known as xiang (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiāng; Wade–Giles: hsiang; lit. 'fragrance'), incense was used by the Chinese cultures starting from Neolithic times with it coming to greater prominence starting from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.[1]

Lidded hill censer (xianglu) with geometric decoration and narrative scenes. Han dynasty, 2nd century BCE

One study shows that during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220)[2] there was increased trade and acquisitions of more fragrant foreign incense materials when local incense materials were considered "poor man's incense".[3]

It reached its height during the Song dynasty with its nobility enjoying incense as a popular cultural pastime, to the extent of building rooms specifically for the use of incense ceremonies.[1]

Besides meaning "incense", the Chinese word xiang () also means "fragrance; scent; aroma; perfume; spice". The sinologist and historian Edward H. Schafer said that in medieval China:

there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incenses – that is, among substances which nourish the body and those which nourish the spirit, those which attract a lover and those which attract a divinity.

— The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, a Study of T'ang Exotics, Edward H. Schafer[4]

Chinese censers edit

An Eastern Han ceramic hill censer
Bronze incense censer in front of Buddhist temple, Xi'an

The earliest vessels identified as censers date to the mid-fifth to late fourth centuries BCE during the Warring States period. The modern Chinese term for "censer," xianglu (香爐, "incense burner"), is a compound of xiang ("incense, aromatics") and lu (爐, "brazier; stove; furnace"). Another common term is xunlu (熏爐, "a brazier for fumigating and perfuming"). Early Chinese censer designs, often crafted as a round, single-footed stemmed basin, are believed to have derived from earlier ritual bronzes, such as the dou 豆 sacrificial chalice.

Among the most celebrated early incense burner designs is the hill censer (boshanlu 博山爐), a form that became popular during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE). Some scholars believe hill censers depict a sacred mountain, such as Mount Kunlun or Mount Penglai. These elaborate vessels were designed with apertures that made rising incense smoke appear like clouds or mist swirling around a mountain peak.[5]

Other popular designs include censers shaped to look like birds or animals, small "scenting globes" (xiangqiu 香球), and hand-held censers (shoulu 手爐). Very large censers, sometimes made to resemble ancient ritual bronze vessels, are often placed in the courtyards of Buddhist and Daoist temples.

Uses edit

Medicine edit

Similar ingredients and processing techniques are involved in production of both incense and Traditional Chinese medicines. For example, take jiu ( "moxibustion"). Incense is believed to have physiological and psychological benefits. For instance, according to the Bencao Gangmu pharmacopoeia, "camphor cured evil vapors in heart and belly, and was especially recommended for eye troubles, including cataract."[6]

Time-keeping edit

Along with the introduction of Buddhism in China came calibrated incense sticks and incense clocks (xiangzhong 香鐘 "incense clock" or xiangyin 香印 "incense seal").[7] The poet Yu Jianwu (庾肩吾, 487–551) first recorded them: "By burning incense we know the o'clock of the night, With graduated candles we confirm the tally of the watches."[8] The use of these incense timekeeping devices spread from Buddhist monasteries into secular society.

Religion edit

Burning incense at a Chinese temple

Xiangbang (香棒, with "stick; club") means "incense stick; joss stick". Two "incense" synonyms specifying religious offerings to ancestors or deities are gāoxiāng (高香, "high incense") and gōngxiāng (供香, "offering incense").

The Sunni Muslim Hui Gedimu and the Yihewani burned incense during worship. This was viewed as Daoist or Buddhist influence.[9][10] The Hui, also known as "White-capped HuiHui", used incense during worship, while the Salar, also known as "black-capped HuiHui" considered this to be a heathen ritual and denounced it.[11]

As an art form edit

The Chinese developed a sophisticated art form with incense burning like with tea and calligraphy called xiangdao (香道). It involves various paraphernalia and utensils in various ceramic containers utilised to burn incense. Examples include tongs, spatulas, special moulds to create ideograms with incense powder, etc. all placed on a special small table. It is most often used as an enhancement to a personal space to accompany other arts such as tea drinking and guqin playing.

Production edit

Bamboo processing edit

Bamboo species with good burning characteristics are harvested and dried. The most common type of bamboo used for producing the sticks is Phyllostachys heterocycla cv. pubescens (茅竹,江南竹) since this species produces thick wood and easily burns to ashes in the incense stick. Other types of bamboos such as Phyllostachys edulis (毛竹) may be used, however due to their fiberous surfaces or relatively thin wood producing good bamboo sticks is more difficult. Longer incense stick are produced using cao bamboo (草竹).[12]

The dried bamboo poles of around 10 cm in diameter are first manually trimmed to length, soak, peeled, and then continuously split in halves until thin sticks of bamboo with square cross sections of less than 3mm width have been produced.[13][14] This process has largely been replaced by machines in modern incense production.

Incense materials edit

Chinese incense is made from diverse ingredients with much overlap into the traditional Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia. Of all the incense ingredients some of the most commonly used include:

The dried powdered bark of Persea nanmu(楠木皮) is used extensively for its mucilaginous qualities, which helps to bind the other powdered ingredients together.

Processes edit

Incense powder is formed into the final product through various methods.[12]

Lin-xiang edit

Incense powder is tossed over wet sticks

Nuo-xiang edit

Incense paste is kneaded around sticks.

Sculpting edit

For large incense pillars, incense paste is piled around a single bamboo stick and sculpted to shape

Winding edit

Incense paste is extruded and wound to produce spiral incense

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b 劉良佑,《香學會典》,臺北東方香學研究會 Archived 2020-08-18 at the Wayback Machine,2003
  2. ^ Needham, Joseph and Lu Gwei-Djen (1974). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 2, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality. Cambridge University Press. p. 132.
  3. ^ Schafer, Edward H. (1963). The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, a Study of T'ang Exotics. University of California Press.
  4. ^ Schafer, Edward H. (1963). The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, a Study of T'ang Exotics. University of California Press. p. 155.
  5. ^ Erickson, Susan N. (1992). "Boshanlu: Mountain Censers of the Western Han Period: A Typological and Iconological Analysis", Archives of Asian Art 45:6–28.
  6. ^ Schafer (1963), p. 167.
  7. ^ Bedini, Silvio A. (1963). "The Scent of Time. A Study of the Use of Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Philosophical Society. 53 (5): 1–51. doi:10.2307/1005923. hdl:2027/mdp.39076006361401. JSTOR 1005923.
  8. ^ Tr. Schafer (1963), p. 160.
  9. ^ BARRY RUBIN (2000). Guide to Islamist Movements. M.E. Sharpe. p. 80. ISBN 0-7656-1747-1. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  10. ^ Michael Dillon (1999). China's Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects. Richmond: Curzon Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-7007-1026-4. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  11. ^ Knights of Columbus. Catholic Truth Committee (1913). The Catholic encyclopedia: an international work of reference on the constitution, doctrine, discipline, and history of the Catholic Church, Volume 3. Encyclopedia Press. p. 680. Retrieved 2011-01-23.
  12. ^ a b Chan, Ka-yan (陳家恩) (1989). "Joss Stick Manufacturing: A Study of a Traditional Industry in Hong Kong" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch. 29: 94–120. eISSN 1991-7287. ISSN 0085-5774.
  13. ^ 陳, 永順 (2010-03-07), 失落百年 「剖香腳」技藝重現, 聯合報, 聯合新聞網
  14. ^ 葉, 月珠, 香腳, archived from the original on 2011-07-26, retrieved 2010-07-13
  15. ^ Victor H Mair; Liam Kelley (30 September 2015). Imperial China and Its Southern Neighbours. ISEAS Publishing. pp. 222–228. ISBN 978-981-4620-53-6.
  16. ^ Joseph Needham (27 September 1974). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5, Issue 2. Cambridge University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-521-08571-7.

External links edit