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Incensed: Culture mavens inhale history

2014-03-27 12:59:28

(Shanghai Daily)


Height of incense culture

Incense culture reached its height in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when nobility enjoyed incense as a cultural pastime, to the extent of building rooms specifically for the use of elaborate incense ceremonies and appreciation. They involved meticulous preparation with various tools, burning, inhaling and contemplating graceful curls of smoke. Incense was often lit while playing guqin (seven-string zither) and practicing calligraphy.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, incense culture became even more popular.

Traditional incense culture was promoted by scholars and scholar-officials, especially in the Tang and Song dynasties. They believed herbal incense captured and encapsulated the pure yang energy of the universe and thus would assist them in becoming one with Heaven and Earth.

Incense for literati

“Being one with Heaven and Earth” — tian ren he yi — has been the ultimate philosophical pursuit of Chinese literati ever since Taoist Chuang Tzu (369-286 BC) put forward the concept.

“It’s human nature to love fragrance, just as trees love the sun and butterflies love flowers,” Fu says. “In traditional Chinese culture, incense represents the ultimate harmony between man, heaven and earth.”

Incense also epitomizes the beauty of being soft, a concept cherished by Confucianists, Buddhists and Taoists. “When incense is lit, its smoke flows in a slow and elegant form similar to tai chi movements, the rhyme of calligraphy and the rhythm of guqin music,” Fu observes.

Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) was one of the first scholar-officials to link herbal incense with morality and rectitude. He wrote in a lengthy poem titled “Li Sao” (“The Lament”) that he wore certain fragrant herbs to help elevate his moral character to follow the way of Heaven.

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