A Lady perfuming her Sleeves, detail, ink and colours on silk, 129.6 X 47.3 cm, Chen Hongshu (1598-1652), Ming dynasty, Shanghai Museum

In the West, incense is generally defined as ‘a gum infused with spices that produced a sweet smell and smoke when burned, and played an essential part in religious ceremonial rites’. In China, however, incense defies definition. Known generically by the word xiang, which could mean ‘fragrance, scent, aromatics, perfume, flavouring and spice’, it refers to a broad group of substances which came in different forms. They might be solid, powdery or blended; and included cones and coils which were lit at the tip, or sticks of tindery powder, all of which emitted a fragrance upon burning. Here, we explore a fascinating exhibition on fragrance from China

‘The culture of incense played a major role in Chinese civilisation,’ says Eric Lefebvre, director of the Musée Cernuschi, who has curated the exhibition, Fragrance from China: Incense Culture in Imperial China tracing its evolution from the 3rd century BC to the 19th century. ‘The show, a special collaboration with the Shanghai Museum, was inspired by the current interest for incense in China. We know the French public would be fascinated by the subject as there is a new emphasis on the culture of scent now in France.’

The Exhibition in Paris

This exhibition theme on fragrance from China is an unpublished subject that has no precedent. ‘Fragrances are actually a new topic for us as museum practices are still dominated by visual culture,’ says Mr Lefebvre. ‘China has a 2000-year incense culture where the burning of incense was performed in many different social contexts, whether sacred or profane, public or private. We have focused on its material and visual aspects spanning four major periods: The Han (206 BC-AD220) to the Tang (618-906); the Song (960-1279) and the Yuan (1279-1368); the Ming (1368-1644); and the Qing (1644-1911).’

‘Each period moreover is accompanied by a unique smelling experience,’ he goes on to say.  ‘Frederic Obringer, a sinologist specialising in Chinese medicine and particularly perfumes, was asked to select and translate ancient incense formulas. We then approached the chief creator of perfumes at Parfums Dior, Francois Demachy, to recreate the fragrances and provide an olfactory experience of incense. Explanations regarding the composition of the fragrances are provided to the public through computers.’

The History of Incense in China

Chinese incense was used since at least the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han periods. Increased trade along the Silk Road during the Han saw ‘foreign’ fragrances such as sandalwood, camphor, benzoin and frankincense arriving in the country. They aroused much wonder since local products were considered ‘poor man’s incense’. At the time, Han scholar Cheng Xuan (127-200) described incense as ‘pastes’ whose constituents included aloe (garoo), putchuk (costus), clove, camphor, musk and wild honey.

The culture of incense and fragrance from China went on through the ages to sustain many types of artistic production. Archaeological evidence suggests its earliest vehicles were universal ‘hill censers’ or boshan xianglu; the word lu meaning ‘censer, brazier, stove or furnace’. They appeared in divination and liturgical practices intimately linked with the cult of the ancestors and the afterlife. Cast in bronze to resemble miniature mountain forms, they were fretted with holes to enable incense smoke to swirl around the peak like clouds of mist. Speculation about the meaning of the mountain continues unabated today. There are those who say it was a shamanistic notion separating heaven and earth.

The role of the Incense Burner in China

The incense burner, one of the accessories used in fragrance from China, was a sacred form of funerary furniture of which only a handful have survived the passage of time. Some appeared in zoomorphic forms. One of the earliest, a duck-shaped specimen from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 9), carries an opening on its back for escaping odours. Another Han incense burner contains a pair of birds, male and female, which were part of a sequence of sacred animals marking the cardinal points. The bird symbolised the south; the tiger, the east; the dragon, the west; and the tortoise, the north.

The Advent of Buddhism

The advent of Buddhism from around the 1st century played a critical part in China’s evolving incense culture and the role of fragrance in China. New liturgical and meditative practices were introduced to its temples and monasteries where burning incense was a form of reverence for deities: It purified the atmosphere of a temple space, preparing it for the assembly of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The most important object in a temple moreover was not the altar, but the incense burner sitting on it: Every liturgy started with its lighting and ended with a return to it. Indeed the Sanskrit word for temple is gandhakuti, which means ‘house of incense’.

The Buddhist religion brought many innovations that were gradually introduced into Chinese secular life. The incense time-keeping device was probably the most remarkable; it was first employed in monasteries as the graduated candle monks used at their vigils to tell the time of night. As the 6th-century poet Yu Jianwu (487-551) tells us: ‘By burning incense, we know the hour of the night. With the graduated candle we confirm the tally of the watches’.

Buddhism in Tang-dynasty China

Buddhism attained new heights in Tang China (618-906), when the burning of increasingly complex odoriferous material accompanied its rites. In 659, ‘six critical perfumes’ were singled out by the Xin Xiu Ben Cao, ‘Newly Reorganised Pharmacopoeia’ – the oldest official pharmacopoeia of any civilisation: They were aloeswood (garroo), frankincense, cloves, patchouli, elenni and liquid amber. The poet Du Fu (712-770) described blended incense used in temples as a scented amalgam of a ‘hundred blend aromatics’ with odours smelling of the ‘exhalations of flowers’. Up to 42 types of incense and aromatics were later listed in a Tang encyclopaedia that included fragrance from China.

Chinese Perfume Merchants

The great advances made by Tang shipbuilding and navigation enabled aromatics which had earlier arrived by land to reach China now by sea. Eighth- and 9th-century writings speak of ‘perfume merchants’ who sailed the Nanhai, ‘Southern Seas’ of southeast Asia, searching for resins, sandalwood, aloeswood, camphor and myrrh, among others. Enormous quantities of these perfumes were destined for the port of Canton (Guangzhou), known as ‘one of the great incense markets of the world’.

The culture of incense was not limited to China. It travelled along with the Buddhist religion to Japan where it was well-received. The novelty of kneading different blends of incense was considered a great art and gave rise to ‘incense-guessing parties’ which became an intrinsic part of Heian (794-1185) court life. They were popular with the aristocracy and the cognoscenti, and were featured in the Tale of Genji by the Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Fragrance from China: From Religious to Secular

Incense in China meanwhile was making the transition from the religious to the secular realm. The scholar-officials, who governed the Song dynasty (960-1279), had created a new moral order whose principles were founded on a revivified Confucianism. Under their guidance, the Song emerged a time of immense scientific and artistic achievement, which was paralleled by a vigorous spirit of intellectual inquiry. The first compendiums on the natural history of fragrances, fragrance from China, and their origins were compiled, and at least 12 versions of  Treatise on Perfumes and Aromatic Substances proliferated.

These circumstances made incense an indispensable part of Song literati life. The burning of fragrances called xiangdao, ‘the way of the scent’, was believed to nourish the spirit as well as the mind. Blended incense surfaced as an aid and companion to reading, contemplation and meditation as corroborated by the 13th-century connoisseur Zhao Xigu: ‘When a clean table by a bright window is set in order, seals and incense are laid out’.

The Three Objects of Incense for Fragrance from China

Xiangdao inspired the making of new scholarly accoutrements in utilitarian ceramic forms. The luping san shi, ‘three objects of incense’ – boxes, vases and bottles – were products of the Song kilns renowned for the superb quality of both ‘imperial’ and ‘popular’ wares. Among the finest products requisitioned for the court was northern celadon known as Yaozhou ware from Shaanxi. It was adapted on a small incense box to reflect literati taste, bearing a surface decoration of carved floral peony designs.

The Literati Culture of the Song

The literati culture of the Song was sustained by the succeeding Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). One of the ‘four great masters of the Yuan’, the outstanding landscapist Ni Zan (1301-1374), was an eminent fan of incense. He often painted in his studio, the ‘chamber of purity’, surrounded by the aroma of incense and the finest incense accoutrements. Great works of Song and Yuan painting are very rare, and it is not known if Ni Zan was a subject of portraiture during his lifetime. He was subsequently captured by the Ming professional artist, Qiu Ying (fl 1500-1550) seated on a day bed with incense burner and accoutrements on a side table, flanked by two attendants.

In the Ming Dynasty

By the Ming (1368-1644), the culture of incense had been demystified and was permeating almost all aspects of Chinese social life. Fully integrated into the material culture of the elite, it was a marker of social status. While principally associated with literary activities, it was no longer confined to the study or the home, but was taking place in the open, in pavilions and gardens. An anonymous artist has illustrated some 18 scholars indulging in this most cultivated of past-times. His painting shows a boy attendant preparing incense on a censer standing on a table. Behind him one scholar is playing the guqin, Chinese ‘zither’ surrounded by various companions practising calligraphy, playing chess and other musical instruments.

The Ming was the first indigenously Chinese dynasty following Mongol rule. In 1369 – a year after its founding – the imperial kiln was built in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi dedicated to producing special court porcelains. Standards for connoisseurship had been set, giving rise to high-grade incense creations. Jingdezhen had been synonymous with Yuan blue and white porcelain. Ming blue and white objects such as a Jiajing (r 1522-1566) incense burner was modelled after a traditional bronze prototype. Characterised by a straight mouth, round drum belly, flaring circular foot and two elephant tusk handles; its surface decoration of blue scrolling tendrils and vine leaves housed an auspicious phoenix.

The Maritime Voyages of Ming China

The remarkable maritime voyages of Ming China had been securing valuable returns in the interim. Around the 17th century, its commercial success led to new material prosperity and a market for commodities developed. The world of goods made conspicuous consumption a part of late Ming life where the place of things, their ranking, classification and connoisseurship was cause for concern. In the Zunsheng Bajian, ‘Eight Discourses on the Art of Living’, the writer Gao Lian (fl.17th century) alluded to ‘The pure enjoyment of cultured idleness including art collecting and connoisseurship’.

However, the role of incense received added emphasis from the scholar and ‘arbiter of taste’, Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), great-grandson of famous Ming painter Wen Zhengming (1479-1559). In a cultivated Ming home, Wen said in the Zhang wu zhi, ‘Treatise of Superfluous Things’ (circa 1615-1620): ‘Burners should be continuously alight to provide warmth even when incense is not being burned; only thus do you have a tasteful intent, yi gu’. The choice of incense burner was also to be seasonally appropriate, with bronze and silver valued over gold.

Incense in Ming-dynasty Domestic Life

Incense and its various attributes were already natural to Ming domestic life. A permanent fixture on home altars was the wu gong, ‘five offerings’; a burner supported on either side by two vases and two candlesticks. Perfumes and aromatics were regular components in cosmetics. At home, fragrance was used on the body, and in the bath; powdered varieties appeared in sachets for scenting apparel and bedclothes. ‘Censing baskets’ enabled court ladies to be profusely scented. The painting, A Lady Perfuming Her Sleeves by the artist, Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) portrays the subject leaning over a gauze-like basket to have her sleeves and garment scented and humidified by incense fumes. Incense was thought to have physiological effects in medicine; it was used in moxibustion. Fumigating and purification rites employed toxic incense substances for reasons of hygiene.

The Ming was overthrown by the Manchu rulers of Qing China (1644-1911). Heirs to a cultural tradition that was not their own, they embarked on a distinct ideology to legitimise their regime of conquest. One significant avenue was their patronage of the arts; it was aimed at creating a cultural renaissance that would perpetuate their rule.

The Manchus

The Manchus were avid devotees of Tibetan Buddhism who deeply venerated the culture of incense. Perfumes were considered a reserve of capital and acquired special importance in the imperial system. Rare agarwood for instance was much valued, it attained the status of a state commodity and was stored within the precincts of the Forbidden City. Part of court etiquette required the symbolic burning of incense and a table of aromatics was habitually placed before the Son of Heaven. The Manchus were partial to metalwork with ritual and ceremonial functions. They reinvented the boshan xianglu, its Qing version heavily embellished with gold inlay.

Demand for Incense in the Qing Period

The enormous demand for Qing period incense burners and furniture was met by the expanded palace workshops of the Imperial Household Agency in the Forbidden City. Objects tailored to individual emperor’s specifications, appeared in porcelain, cloisonné, silver, copper and horn, among others. During the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) special limited editions surfaced. An exquisite sancai ‘three colour’ incense censer of low temperature yellow, green and aubergine glaze is typical of Kangxi-period ceramics. The hollow grid-like ceramic box allowed for easy dispersal of perfume and smoke. It was designed with five decorative roundels of jade on two of its sides.

The late Qing dynasty was a time when the first samples of Chinese incense reached Europe. The traveller and connoisseur Henri Cernuschi (1821-1896) who visited China and Japan in the early 1870s amassed some 4,000 objects of Asian art. They included some very early incense burners. His collection was subsequently bequeathed to the city of Paris and the Musée Cernuschi was founded in his honour in 1898.


Fragrance from China: Incense Culture in Imperial China, from 9 March to 26 August, at the Musée Cernuschi, 7 Avenue Velasquez, Paris,