Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Chinese Incense Art

Endowed with increasing symbolic qualities through the ages, perfume provides a fitting outlook on many aspects of Chinese culture. From its significance in liturgical practices to its association with the art de vivre of intellectual circles, incense has given rise to a great variety of artistic productions. From fragrance burners to incense tables, the history of perfume in China is an opportunity to explore some of the most superb artistic creations in a great variety of mediums. The pieces presented here will give visitors a broad overview of Chinese craftsmanship, from bronzesmiths to lacquer painters to bamboo sculptors. Lastly, a collection of works by the greatest painters, such as Chen Hongshou and Qiu Ying, depicts elegant ladies, hermits and scholars and their relationship to incense, whether used for toiletry, meditative, or ritualistic purposes.

 

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense is subtle, and yet it is a valuable fragrance product. It has long been used as a precious medium in the worship of deities and ancestors, and has been bound to religious beliefs since ancient times. Most importantly, incense is closely related to the Chinese people’s daily life.
 
Before the Han Dynasty, incense was used by the noble classes in bathing and perfuming the body and was also a symbol which represented social class. These ancient people used to burn original incense materials in a type of censer which looked like a bowl with a single flat foot. In the period of the Western Han Dynasty, when thoughts of the pursuit of immortality were rising, a new and sophisticated type of censer named boshanlu was created, facilitating charming scenes of incense-burning in which the "burning agarwood within a boshanlu made wisps of smoke float together towards the heavens". In the Wei, Jin and Southern, and Northern Dynasties, in addition to the existing ways in which incense was used by the noble classes and the Taoists, there was another Buddhist way of using incense during ceremonies. The consumption of incense was very popular among the imperial family and the scholar classes during the Sui and Tang dynasties. People not only used incense made from herbs and wood, but also built palaces with fragrant wooden materials. With the diffusion of Taoism and Buddhism, moreover, ordinary people gradually recognized the use of incense. This had a deep influence on the development of incense culture in the coming Song and Yuan societies.
 
The Song and Yuan dynasties were the heyday of the Chinese incense culture; people were extremely fond of incense, especially the literati. In the Song Dynasty, incense-burning became an elegant activity associated with the literati. During the Northern and Southern Song dynasties, flower arrangement, incense, tea, and Chinese painting were known as the "four passtimes" for the literati, as significant as the "four arts", i.e. Guqin, Go, calligraphy, and Chinese painting. Although incense-burning was a passtime, it was also a criterion by which the Song people judged the lifestyle of these literati. Among Song literati, Ting-Jian Huang of the Northern Song Dynasty, whose nickname was "incense-mania," was the most excellent incense critic. He once stated that "a stick of burning incense on the armrest against which I lean brings me a clean and clear mind" to articulate the highest state of incense appreciation. In his opinion, the purpose of incense appreciation does not end with the identification of the smell. It is a process from the perception of smell to the inspiration of the mind, an exploration of lifestyle, and a transition from materiality to spirituality. The Ming Dynasty was the mature period of traditional incense culture. During the Ming, many celebrities, monks, and Taoists were building their "quiet rooms," using "incense meditation" to "discipline the mind" and using "incense practice" as a way to examine, study and investigate mentality. It was then that almost all methods of incense appreciation were established. In the period from the middle of the Ming Dynasty to the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the development of incense culture, finally, arrived at its complete state and gained popularity.
 
Nowadays, incense culture has extended its tradition in Taiwan and continues to develop here. With research carried out by scholars and associations founded by enthusiasts, the study of incense has gradually been built up. We are holding this exhibition jointly with the Chinese Incense Art Association, offering an opportunity for the public to get to know and understand the features of traditional incense culture. This exhibition is also a journey which considers along the way how incense can help us in daily life, how we can use incense to worship the gods and Buddha and how it can help us to prevent disease, promote harmony between body and mind and purify the inner world by merging it with the Truth. 

National Museum of History 

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photos by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya

Incense - Photo by Shamow'el Rama Surya