In a recent TV series, a young Mao Zedong (1893-1976) collects a handful of blessed incense ash from a Buddhist temple in hopes of treating his mother who has collapsed on hearing bad news about the family rice business.
In the program “Mao Zedong,” Mao’s cousin has already bought his mother Western medicine — novel to the average Chinese at the time. He grabs Mao’s incense ash neatly wrapped in a handkerchief and tosses it away.
He calls Mao “silly” for believing a Buddhist master who told him to mix the incense ash with water and have his mother drink it. The Buddhist said it could cure ailments. “I’ve only heard that eating incense ash would kill a person — never that it could cure anyone,” the cousin says scornfully.
The TV series commemorating Mao’s 120th birth anniversary depicts the tumultuous early 20th century, when Western ideas and medicine were introduced. To many Chinese, traditional herbal incense developed thousands of years earlier was inferior to Western healing. Mao’s cousin, along with many other Chinese, has stigmatized valuable Chinese traditions, including incense culture.
In fact, traditional herbal incense, made according to ancient formulas, does have health functions linked to traditional Chinese medicine, though incense is not strictly a cure. It’s more of a health-maintainer and balancer of yin-yang energies.
By the 1950s, Mao had become a staunch supporter of traditional Chinese medicine. He once wrote “Long Live Acupuncture!” His attitude toward herbal incense, though less emphatic, was also sympathetic.
Renowned culture commentator Liu Yang writes in his blog that Mao’s mother once cured his childhood ailments with incense ash from a Buddhist temple in Shaoshan, his hometown, in Hunan Province. Liu says that once he himself was drenched with rain and got a fever on a mountain in Zhejiang Province. A Taoist gave him some incense ash to eat and the next day he felt fine. He had no idea why the incense seemed to work.
Not a placebo
Liu says Chairman Mao might have appreciated incense ash mainly because it helped poor patients, probably through the placebo effect — meaning an ineffective placebo “works” in healing because people believe it will work.
And since the ash came from a Buddhist temple, many people believed Buddha would answer their prayers for healing.
But China’s traditional herbal incense is not just a placebo.
“Traditional herbal incenses all help strengthen the yangming energy channel that opens at the mouth and nose and ends in the spleen and stomach,” says Fu Jingliang, founder of modern incense culture in China.
Yangming is one of the body’s 12 channels that traditional Chinese healers believe facilitate the flow of vital energy.
“By feeding the channel through nostrils and pores, traditional herbal incense helps consolidate positive inner strength while fending off exogenous pathogens,” Fu tells Shanghai Daily.
Fu is chairman of the China Incense Society, chief incense consultant to Shaolin Temple, founder of China’s first website on incense culture, and president of Shandong Huitong Incense Industrial Co.
While herbal incense works mainly through inhalation of smoke absorbed through membranes, traditional Chinese medicine works mainly though acupuncture and drinking herbal decoctions, or both.
“But you can also drink water mixed with herbal incense ash to cure certain ailments,” Fu says.
In the 1990s, hospital staff in Fu’s hometown in Shandong Province thought he had passed away because he hadn’t visited in 30 years. Fu said he had treated himself for occasional fever and diarrhea by inhaling herbal incense or drinking ash mixed with water.