What Are Chinese Incense For?

What Are Chinese Incense For?

In ancient times, our ancestors initiated the millennia-long journey of Chinese incense culture by "burning wood and offering sacrifices to Heaven and Earth." From the basic rituals of incense to the techniques of making and using incense, and to the artistic expressions, it was largely perfected during the Wei and Jin periods, reaching its zenith in the Tang and Song dynasties. Incense culture is an essential part of traditional Chinese culture.


Concept of Chinese Incense Culture

Chinese incense culture is a series of items, techniques, methods, habits, systems, and concepts that gradually evolved in the long history of the Chinese nation. It revolves around the effects of different fragrances on people, personal needs, and the production, formulation, combination, and usage of various incense products. It reflects the unique spiritual temperament, cultural traditions, aesthetic concepts, values, thinking patterns, and worldviews of the Chinese people.


Incense culture permeates various aspects of social life, including its history, the production, formulation, and combination of fragrances, the development of incense products, the production and use of incense utensils (used in incense making), and the relationship between incense and religion, as well as its presence in various forms of cultural and artistic works.


History of Chinese Incense Culture

The history of incense goes back thousands of years, with origins dating to the Shang Dynasty and even earlier periods. In the late Neolithic period, over 6,000 years ago, people already used the burning of wood and other offerings in rituals to worship various deities.


The traditional use of incense in China can also be traced back to ancient and prehistoric times. Archaeological findings from recent decades, including pottery incense burners, suggest that our ancestors in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins were using incense over four to five thousand years ago. The oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty, over 3,000 years ago, also mention the character "柴," referring to "burning wood in a ritual," providing early evidence of the use of incense in rituals.


Existing historical records indicate that during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, people were using aromatic plants in various ways, including burning (artemisia), wearing (orchids), boiling (orchids, osmanthus), and making pastes (osmanthus paste). Aromatics like frankincense were also added to wine. In ancient times, incense was used for medicinal purposes, religious ceremonies, perfuming clothes, banquets, burning incense at examination halls, and constructing buildings using fragrant wood. During the Qin and Han periods, with the active Silk Road trade routes, many spices from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Europe were introduced to China.


Key Stages in the Development of Traditional Chinese Incense Culture

From existing historical records, the history of using incense in China can be traced back to before the Spring and Autumn period. Its development can be summarized in several stages: it originated in the Spring and Autumn period, grew during the Han Dynasty, matured in the Tang Dynasty, and reached its peak during the Song Dynasty. Chinese incense culture has endured for thousands of years, leaving behind a precious legacy for the nation and history. According to historical records, its development can be divided into several stages, known as "香烟始升" (the beginning of incense):


  • It began to sprout during the Pre-Qin period.
  • It took its initial form during the Qin and Han periods.
  • It grew during the Six Dynasties.
  • It matured during the Sui and Tang dynasties.
  • It flourished during the Song and Yuan dynasties.
  • It spread widely during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Song Dynasty: The Pinnacle of Incense Culture

After developing during the Han, Wei, Sui, and Tang periods, incense culture had already taken shape by the time of the Song Dynasty. It had become rich and deeply rooted in society, allowing Song-era scholars to study incense culture with the appropriate conditions. Even in the bustling streets of the Song Dynasty, incense was ubiquitous. There were dedicated "incense shops" and "incense vendors" selling incense on the market. There were also businesses specialized in making "incense seals," and even restaurants offered incense to customers. In the streets, there were various foods infused with fragrances, such as fragrant plum candies, fragrant sugar water ("bathing Buddha water"), fragrant candies, and fragrant papayas, among others. This marked an important sign of the flourishing of incense culture during that period.


The "Qingming Shanghe Tu," a famous painting depicting the cityscape of Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng) during the Song Dynasty, features numerous scenes related to incense. One can see a signboard outside an incense shop with the inscription "刘家上色沉檀拣香" (referring to "Liu's top-grade aloeswood and sandalwood incense selection"). Even professionals involved in the incense-making industry had specific dress codes. "The Book of Dreams of the Capital East" recorded that in the Song capital of Bianjing (Kaifeng), "people from different professions have their own dress codes," and incense makers were required to wear "capped hats and draped robes." It further mentioned that they were "involved in stamping household signs for sitting at establishments, and sometimes they stamped images for Buddhist statues." There were also people "providing incense cakes and charcoal bundles" (Book 3, "Various Kinds of Sales"). "Wanglou, Mountain Caves, Plum Blossom Buns, Cao Po Po's Meat Buns, Li Si's Tea Stall... others are soup stalls, tea stalls, taverns, incense shops, and residents" (Book 2, "Palaces and Buildings in Front of Xuande Building"). "Wulin Jiushi" records that in Hangzhou during the Southern Song Dynasty, there was an "old woman in the tavern who burns incense for offerings, known as the incense lady." From these historical records, it's evident that incense activities were widespread among the common people during the Song Dynasty, indicating the popularity and prosperity of incense culture.


Incense Culture as an Integral Part of Traditional Chinese Culture

Chinese literati have a deep love for incense, and from ancient times to the present, they have been participants and promoters of incense culture, playing a significant role in the development of cultural and historical periods. "Xiang," or incense, was one of the "Four Elegances" cherished by scholars, along with tea, flowers, and paintings. Proficiency in understanding incense was considered the foremost talent among them.


Chinese literati admired incense so much that they expressed their love for incense in poetry and various academic works, leaving countless records in history. In prosperous historical periods, descriptions of incense products were also expressions of support for the political situation at the time. The role of literati in promoting the development of incense culture can be summarized in several aspects:


Firstly, even when incense culture was in its nascent stage, literati actively engaged in and provided extensive support for its development. Many records in historical texts from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods reflect the literati's admiration for incense. For example, in the famous poem "离骚" (Li Sao) by Qu Yuan, there are vivid descriptions of incense: "扈江离与辟燕兮,勿秋兰以为佩" ("Following the rivers, leaving behind the Yue (Xiang) birds, do not consider autumn orchids for adornment") and "朝饮木兰之坠露兮,夕餐秋菊之落英" ("In the morning, I drink dew from magnolias; in the evening, I dine on fallen petals of autumn chrysanthemums"). These verses express the poet's deep appreciation for natural fragrances. Another instance is from the "琴操" (Qin Cao), a work by Cai Yong during the Eastern Han Dynasty. According to legend, Confucius was passing through a remote valley on his way back to the state of Lu. In this valley, he saw fragrant orchids growing luxuriantly. He couldn't help but sigh and said, "兰,当为王者香,今乃独茂,与众草为伍!" ("Orchids, they should be the fragrance of kings, but now they grow profusely, mingling with the common grass!"). Confucius then stopped his carriage, played the zither, and composed the song "漪兰" (Yi Lan). Although during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, wood-based fragrant materials from South China had not yet been widely introduced to the North, the literati's emotional attitude toward incense was already evident.


Secondly, in the eyes of Chinese literati, the burning of incense was considered an elegant activity. They believed that people's love for incense was metaphysical and a natural human need. Zhu Xi wrote a poem titled "香界" (The Realm of Fragrance): "幽兴年来莫与同,滋兰聊欲泛光风;真成佛国香云界,不数准山桂树丛。花气无边熏欲醉,灵芬一点静还通;何须楚客纫秋佩,坐卧经行向此中" ("A sense of tranquility in recent years, unmatched by any other, nurturing orchids and letting their fragrance drift with the wind; in the realm of true enlightenment, there is a cloud of fragrance, countless thickets of cinnamon trees from Zunshan. The fragrance of flowers knows no boundaries; it intoxicates to the point of inebriation. The spirit of fragrance lingers in a single point, reaching everywhere. Why wear an autumn sash with orchids, when you can sit or lie down and walk toward this realm?"). The scholars of the "学界" (academic circle) in ancient times affirmed incense with such high regard, determining its cultural status and ensuring its quality as "elegant culture" and "elite culture." They incorporated incense into daily life rather than limiting it to rituals and religion. This inclusivity was crucial for the widespread dissemination and development of incense culture.


Thirdly, literati actively participated in the production of incense materials and the improvement of incense-burning methods. Many literati were also skilled in incense making, such as Wang Wei, Li Shangyin, Xu Xuan, Huang Tingjian, Su Shi, and Lu You. Su Shi, for instance, mentioned in his writings: "子由生日,以檀香观音像新和印香银篆盘" ("On the birth of his son, he used sandalwood incense to seal a new Guanyin statue, along with a silver seal plate for inscriptions"). There are numerous extant formulas for "plum blossom incense" created by literati, with dozens of variations still passed down to this day.


Contemporary Revival of Chinese Incense Culture

Firstly, in the post-opium war era, which spanned nearly a century, China experienced colonial invasion by imperialist powers and the corruption of the Qing government. This period saw China fall into a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The weakening of the nation's power and continuous social turmoil during modern and contemporary China led people to doubt traditional culture. They began to embrace Western modern cultural trends, and the important component of Chinese culture—incense culture—inevitably suffered from these influences. The continuous turmoil of modern and contemporary society not only greatly affected the trade of fragrant materials and the incense-making industry but also deprived people of the leisure and tranquility needed for enjoying incense.


Secondly, with the development of the chemical industry, synthetic fragrances (i.e., chemical fragrances) were already being produced in Europe in the latter half of the 19th century. The widespread use of synthetic fragrances and chemical processing techniques significantly changed the traditional techniques of incense making. Most incense users now consider the act of burning incense as a ritualistic offering. Since they do not focus on appreciating the aroma, understanding the ingredients and formulations, or assessing the quality of incense, the market became saturated with products that prioritize visual aesthetics or intense fragrance over the true essence of incense. This has resulted in a significant decrease in the technical requirements for making incense, leading to the proliferation of incense producers of varying quality. Product names on the shelves have become increasingly elaborate, packaging more ornate, and the variety of shapes more diverse. However, the essence of the incense itself has often been overlooked. Subpar incense either produces a mere burnt grass smell upon lighting or, although fragrant, lacks elegance. These so-called "incense" products are more about their visual appearance than their quality, and it's no wonder that people today are less interested in appreciating and enjoying incense.


The Revival of Chinese Incense Culture

China, after over 30 years of reform and opening up, has witnessed rapid economic development, becoming the world's third-largest economy. With the rise of the economy, increased political influence, and a resurgence of confidence in traditional Chinese culture that had been suppressed since modern times, the time is ripe for the revival of Chinese incense culture. China's rapid development has given people unprecedented dignity and prosperity, but it has also brought about the pressures of modern life, leading to restlessness, shallowness, emptiness, and confusion in the hearts of many. In the bustling urban life, people yearn for a sense of calm and tranquility. The essence of incense culture lies in wholehearted involvement and appreciation, allowing individuals to reflect on the past, appreciate the present, enjoy friendship, and cherish life. As wisps of smoke rise silently, they bring with them profound thoughts, refreshing the mind. Through the process of refreshing the mind, relieving fatigue, and nurturing both body and mind, individuals become one with the wondrous tranquility of nature, dispelling restlessness and purifying the soul. With the improvement of material and spiritual life levels, an increasing number of people have developed a fondness for incense, use incense, and have higher expectations for the quality of incense. Simultaneously, more incense enthusiasts and connoisseurs have begun to devote themselves to the inheritance and promotion of traditional incense culture. As Chinese society continues to prosper economically and culturally, Chinese incense culture will undoubtedly regain its vitality. In this era of the "Chinese Dream," Chinese incense culture will demonstrate the millennia-old charm of a "Beautiful China" to the world.


Inheritance and Development of Chinese Incense Culture

Firstly, the exploration, organization, and inheritance of Chinese incense culture should be carried out. After decades of comprehensive development, Chinese incense culture reached its peak during the Song Dynasty and has been accumulating for thousands of years. Scholars had the appropriate conditions to study incense culture during this period, and numerous specialized texts on incense studies emerged. Works such as "天香传" (Tian Xiang Chuan) by Ding Wei, "(沈氏)香谱" ((Shen Shi) Xiang Pu) by Shen Li, "(洪氏)香谱" ((Hong Shi) Xiang Pu) by Hong Chu, "名香谱" (Ming Xiang Pu) by Ye Tinggui, "(颜氏)香史" ((Yan Shi) Xiang Shi) by Yan Bowen, and "陈氏香谱" (Chen Shi Xiang Pu) by Chen Jing were authored by contemporary literati, high-ranking officials, or renowned scholars. For example, Ding Wei, the author of "天香传," was an imperial scholar during the Tang Dynasty and became a favored minister under Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty, holding the position of prime minister. His poetry and prose were highly praised. Yan Bowen, the author of "(颜氏)香史," was a famous poet, calligrapher, and painter in the Northern Song Dynasty, and he held the position of assistant compiler at the Imperial Academy. Ye Tinggui, who authored "名香谱" and "(南番香录)," held positions such as assistant minister of the Ministry of War. Many literati, such as Su Shi and Fan Chengda, although they did not write specialized books on incense, were knowledgeable about incense and aromatic materials. Su Shi, for instance, extensively recorded and researched aromatic materials in his collected works. The rich literary and historical documentation about incense culture in China is a valuable resource for exploration, organization, and research. To explore, organize, and protect Chinese incense culture, it is necessary to systematically study it. This requires setting up a series of research topics, including the history of incense culture, the production and processing of aromatic materials, incense product development, incense utensils and tools, the relationship between incense and religion, and cultural and artistic works related to incense. By continuously excavating, organizing, and studying Chinese incense culture, it is possible to reconstruct its history as accurately as possible, providing reliable historical data for its protection. In this process, efforts should be made to cultivate a team of professionals capable of studying and inheriting Chinese incense culture to ensure its continued legacy.


Secondly, vigorous efforts should be made to promote the development of Chinese incense culture. China's historical development offers an opportune moment for the revival of incense culture. Firstly, the country is in a period of economic prosperity and social stability, and high-end individuals are increasingly inclined toward spiritual and cultural pursuits, creating favorable conditions for the development of incense culture. Secondly, government policies to promote the cultural industry, combined with the strong demand for spiritual and cultural consumption among business elites and high-end individuals, can be highly satisfying through incense culture. Chinese incense culture represents an opportunity to promote traditional Chinese culture, cater to the needs of high-end consumers, and revitalize the cultural industry. In order to promote and protect Chinese incense culture and better meet the spiritual and cultural needs of the people, the government should take the following actions:


  1. Emphasize the exploration, organization, and protection of incense culture, and integrate these efforts into the overall protection of intangible cultural heritage.
  2. Support the research and development of incense culture and related products to promote the revitalization of the incense industry.
  3. Encourage the establishment of incense culture museums, exhibition halls, and cultural experience centers to showcase and disseminate the essence of incense culture.
  4. Promote the integration of incense culture into tourism, promoting cultural tourism routes centered around incense culture.
  5. Foster the talents needed for incense culture inheritance and development, training professionals who can carry on the traditions of incense making and appreciation.
  6. Develop policies that promote the development of incense culture and incense-related industries, encouraging private investment and entrepreneurship in this field.

In summary, Chinese incense culture, as an integral part of traditional Chinese culture, has a long history and rich cultural connotations. It has experienced periods of prosperity and decline but is currently experiencing a revival as China's economy and culture flourish. The protection and development of incense culture require coordinated efforts from the government, cultural institutions, scholars, and enthusiasts to ensure that this cultural heritage continues to enrich Chinese society and contribute to the broader world of cultural traditions.

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