An Interesting History of Incense Burning in China

Burning incense sticks in China.

The use of incense in China has a history of thousands of years. (Image: teetasse via Pixabay)

In China, incense holds a special religious significance. Whether it be at Buddhist temples or during ancestral veneration ceremonies, this is always lit. Some of the methods of its preparation also have similarities with the preparation of medications developed in traditional Chinese medicine.

History of Chinese incense

During the time of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), China imported various foreign incense materials. Starting from the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), it became popular among the upper classes of society. In fact, emperors used to give this and aromatics to other kings, loyal servants, and concubines as gifts.

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The wealthy would carry fragrant pouches with them when traveling. Some even consumed aromatics, believing that this would make their bodies smell pleasant. Furniture was made from fragrant woods and walls would be covered with aromatics. Before the Tang Dynasty, the principal ingredients of Chinese incense were Lan flowers, Hui flowers, Cassia Cinnamon, and Sichuan Pepper. The Tang Dynasty saw the inclusion of Aloeswood, Camphor, Sandalwood, and Musk in its manufacture.

The wealthy would carry fragrant pouches with them when traveling and some even consumed aromatics believing that this would make their bodies smell pleasant.
The wealthy would carry fragrant pouches with them when traveling and some even consumed aromatics believing that this would make their bodies smell pleasant. (Image: via Pixabay)

During the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), the research, use, and trade of incense reached a peak. “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,” according to Kino Objects.

Chinese believe that the smoke emanating from a burning incense stick in Buddhist temples acts as a link between the Buddha and the worshipper. People also interpret burning it as a call for sacrifice. Just as it burns itself out while pleasing others, believers sacrifice themselves for their loved ones, wealth, and other reasons.

Types of incense

Incense is mostly made of a single component — the raw, aromatic substance that burns out and releases smoke and smell when lighted. There are several types produced in China. One of the most commonly used types is the stick variety. This largely came into prominence during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). This comes in two variations — one with a center and another without a center.

Stick incense is the most common type, but you can also find coil incense that is spiral in shape.
Stick incense is the most common type, but you can also find a coil type that is spiral in shape. (Image: Julia Phang via Flickr)

“The type with a center is seen as more Indian in its origin and associations, although it is also used in parts of China. The widespread Nag Champa incense is almost always made with a bamboo center… Some people do not like the smell of the bamboo stick burning, so high-quality cored-incense sticks might have a sandalwood stick center… The type without a center is the one more commonly used in China, and almost exclusively through Japan and Tibet. It is made simply by rolling the incense paste into a stick shape, and allowing it to dry,” according to Kino Objects.

Coil incense is spiral in shape. Some of the temples in Hong Kong have a special type that opens up and becomes a cone spiral. You will also find solid, cone-shaped types being used in China. This type was originally created by the Japanese and has been widely adopted by Tibetans. A backward cone type has a hole at the bottom. This allows the plume to flow downward, unlike all other types where the smoke is emitted upwards.

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