The exotic scent of incense drifted through every aspect of life under the Qing emperors, as Frances Wood explains

Filling temples, palace halls and courtyards with white smoke and its intoxicating scent, incense has been at the heart of Chinese Imperial ritual for thousands of years. By the time the Manchu Qing Dynasty seized power in the mid-17th century, the use of incense was integral to every part of life.

The Chinese burnt it at home in family shrines, and offered it in local temples for festivals and at times when the help of the gods was required. Indeed, the household of the Qing emperor may have used more incense than any previous regime: their smoky rituals took in Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist beliefs, then they burnt even more of it at shrines for Tibetan Lamaism and as part of their ancestral shamanistic practices.

Incense is likely to have been used for virtually all Chinese rituals. The scent produced was considered purifying, and the clouds of smoke were imbued with particular significance for Daoists. The smoke from the burners replicated the clouds that swirl around the peaks of Boshan, the legendary home where the immortals soar above the human realm.

Indeed, the pierced covers of incense burners in the Boshan style were explicitly made in the form of a mountain with rising peaks. The smoke rose through the piercings, creating a vision of a mountain wreathed in mist: Many later incense burners retained the pierced cover, even as the mountain shape became less common.

Much more basic tripod burners had formed part of the sets of ritual bronzes used through life and for burials as early as the Shang dynasty, but a great increase in the appearance of Boshan-style burners during the Han probably indicates a proportionate increase in the use of incense in ritual. It is hardly surprising, then, that at this time the ingredients for the incense were mainly indigenous: cogon grass, galangal, Magnolia liliiflora and Chinese lovage have been identified from the ashes in excavated Han dynasty incense burners, while written records identify aloes, basil, camphor, cinnamon, citronella, civet, gardenia, jasmine, musk, onycha (from a mollusc), spikenard and walnut gum.

By the time of the Qing, a great variety of non-indigenous materials were being imported from South and South-east Asia and Africa to improve the aroma – ambergris, benzoin, different types of camphor, frankincense, myrrh, storax, liquidambar, patchouli and sandalwood.

These were mixed (sometimes with rice) and pounded together into a paste, into which pieces of wood were dipped to form incense sticks. Alternatively, the mixture would be extruded to form coils, some of them several feet high, to be hung from the roofs of the temples.

Given how frequently it was used, there is a startling paucity of literary references to the ritual use of incense. Types of sacrifice are often explained in great detail – we are told what color the pigs or oxen should be, and how many fowl or other meats should be used – but rarely about the use of incense. The ancient folk songs collected as the Shi Jing or Classic of Odes (c.11th-7th centuries BC) refer to fumigation for medical and hygienic purposes and also to "fragrance" at a sacrifice, "diffused all around" as the ancestors are invited to partake in the ritual. There is are also brief references in the pre-Qin Chu ci or Songs of the South, which record elaborate details of feasts and food offerings, to "halls filled with a penetrating fragrance" and "the wafting of innumerable scents".

This "wafting of scents" was, for the Manchu Qing emperors, an essential part of demonstrating their mastery of – and allegiance to – Chinese practice, a matter of great significance that occupied much of their time. Nowadays, the sheer density of Imperial ritual activity seems eye-opening. Surviving paintings show the annual sequence, with emperors worshipping at the Temple of Heaven at the New Year, then soon after presiding over sacrifices at the Altar of the Earth, which kick-starts the agricultural cycle.

New Year was by far the busiest time of the year. The Guangxu Emperor was recorded as having carried out 20 rituals in a single day, lighting incense in all the Buddhist halls in the Forbidden City and in the Daoist shrines in the Imperial garden and the Dagaodian, as well as carrying out shamanistic rituals and making offerings to the kitchen god, as all Chinese families did at that time.

There were an impressive number of Imperial rituals to reaffirm the legitimacy of the dynasty, of course. These included ceremonies at the Imperial tombs, and not just the tombs of the Qing ancestors, but also those of their Ming predecessors – whom the Qing had displaced. Ceremonies at the Qing tombs were held twice a month, but additional rituals meant the Imperial family would visit up to 30 times a year, on each occasion burning incense.

Family-based rituals also had to be performed: births, marriages and deaths were to be marked with solemnifications, as were dates of accession and Imperial birthdays. Then there were the five annual visits to the official Imperial ancestral temple, the Taimiao, and frequent private rituals in the Fengxiandian, a hall dedicated to the ancestors.

Buddhist rituals were carried out regularly within the Forbidden City: in the Buddhist hall in the Yangxindian, offerings were made and incense burnt six times in the first month of the year, seven times in the last month, and four or five times through the rest of the year. Shamanistic rituals took place in spring and autumn. Daily Tibetan Lamaist ceremonies were carried out in the Zhongzheng Dian, and the palace women made daily offerings to sacred crows and magpies. They also made frequent offerings to the goddess of silkworms and to the goddess who protected from smallpox.

All of these acts of worship during the Qing dynasty involved the lighting of incense sticks and coils, filling the many halls of the Forbidden City with perfumed smoke. And each of these incense sticks or coils would have sat in incense burners, specially commissioned by the Emperor, for altars large and small within the Forbidden City. Some were open, others covered like those Han dynasty Boshan burners. Some were ceramic, made for the altars of heaven, earth, sun and moon, and reflecting their symbolic colors. Others were of bronze, either plain or decorated with elaborate cloisonné enamel, like the incense burner offered by Bonhams at the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale in November. Each made its own small contribution to the pervasive wafts of incense that distinguished the supremely ritualistic Qing dynasty.

Frances Wood is former curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library.

Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Hong Kong
Tuesday 29 November at 2pm
Enquiries: Asaph Hyman
+44 (0) 20 7468 5888

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