Listening to the Ancient Zither: a Pictorial Rendition (crop of full image, Song Dynasty, The Palace Museum Beijing) – this famous image showcases an idyllic afternoon among mandarins in the Song dynasty, with two men enjoying an ancient zither tune, accompanied by burning incense. This was considered a highly desirable way of passing time.
“… In the medieval world of the Far East there was little clear-cut distinction among drugs, spices, perfumes, and incense – 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”
- Edward H. Schaefer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, A Study of T’ang Exotics
This quote perfectly captures the use of incense in ancient and medieval China. The first recorded use of incense in human history was in ancient China, and for significant periods of Chinese history, incense was a treasured as an integral part of a person’s spiritual and physical life. It was drug, spice, perfume, and connector to otherworldly forces all in one.
Incense in Chinese
The easiest way to understand just how pervasive incense was in historical China is to first look at the Chinese word for incense.
(same in simplified and traditional Chinese)
Pinyin: xiāng ;
(For those who don’t want to deal with technicalities: “sh-ee-UN”, as though there is an additional “ee” sound in the middle of the word “shun”, emphasise on “UN”)
The character for incense or aromatics was recorded as far back as the Shang Dynasty (~1600 – 1050 BCE). Below is the original Oracle bone inscription, and the earliest recorded Chinese writing for the character. Chinese is pictographic, so they are literally derived from original drawings of the thing being depicted. Do you see the container at the bottom, with the burning plants on top? And the very graphic pieces of ashes falling? Even after having evolved for thousands of years, the character today (香) keeps this structure of having something resembling an incense burner at the bottom, and burning incense with ashes on top.
Incense as drug, spice, perfume, and spiritual aid
A simple search on Google for the definition of 香 (xiang) brings up the following definitions:
As a noun: incense, perfume, spice
As an adjective: fragrant, scented, comforted, welcomed (common uses: “xiang” food, “xiang” sleep, certain items selling very “xiang”)
It’s immediately obvious from these definitions that “xiang” has a far broader set of meanings compare to the English word “incense”. In fact, the definitions of xiang reflect almost all of its historical uses and connotations as mentioned in the quote at the beginning.
Oracle bone inscriptions mention the multiple uses of aromatics: fragrant wood burning as part of worshipping and ceremonial practices; and sweet smelling herbs used to create some of the earliest forms of alcoholic drinks.
Chinese incense development in the Zhou, Qin, Han and Pre-Tang warring dynasties
By the Zhou dynasty (周朝, approx. 1050-250 BCE), a fairly elaborate ceremony for the worshipping of the skies had evolved, and the burning of scented herbs and woods was a central part of the ceremony.
The Qin and the subsequent Han dynasty (汉朝，206BCE – 220) saw the establishment of the silk road, and along with it imports of many foreign ingredients such as frankincense. Incense use grew significantly in variety and sophistication. For more details of Chinese incense through the neolithic period to the pre-Middle Ages, please refer to this article.
The first known Chinese book written about aromatics was Blended Incense Recipes《和香方》, by a well known historian and politician Fan Ye (范晔) in the Northern & Southern Dynasty, some time around year 430 CE. The book is now permanently lost, but citations of its content in latter texts show that it prescribed many medicinal aromatic blends for illnesses.
Incense use in the Tang and Song dynasties
By the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, approx. 600-900 CE), incense had become somewhat of a “luxury good”, and was deeply entrenched in palace and upper-class life. The Emperor gifted precious aromatics to other rulers, favoured concubines, and loyal servants.
Vain members of the Tang gentry – men and women – went beyond simple incense burning to bathing in perfumed water, carrying fragrant pouches, and consuming aromatics, with the aspiration of achieving naturally perfumed bodies. They also used aromatics lavishly in their homes, commissioning furniture made from fragrant woods, and covering their walls with perfumed mixtures. The epitome of taste was displayed through flower-viewing or flower-smelling gatherings, where hosts invited guests to view their gardens from aromatic galleries, or combined certain aromas with natural flowers to enhance the overall smell.
Incense use, trade and research reached a peak in the Song Dynasty (宋朝, approx. 900-1200 CE), along with Chinese literary, artistic and cultural development. Its incorporation into daily life spread from the upper-class into middle class populations. A proliferation of aromatic-related books fuelled its popularity and guided its use.
The use of incense in worshipping Gods and ancestors remained central in Tang and Song societies. By then, Buddhism and the associated use of incense in temples had also become pervasive. These practices remain today, and have unfortunately become one of the few widespread uses of incense in modern Chinese societies.
It’s only been in recent years that the burning of incense has been adopted back into homes. We hope that this brief glimpse into the role of incense in Chinese history will inspire you to incorporate the ritual of incense into your daily life, just as it has inspired us to create this first incense collection.
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