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Incensed: Culture mavens inhale history

2014-03-27 12:59:28

(Shanghai Daily)


Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), a poet, calligrapher, painter and official of the Song Dynasty, said herbal incense has 10 merits. The first: “It creates rapport with the purest elements between Heaven and Earth” and the second: “It has the ability to purify body and soul.”

Because of these merits, many Song scholars not only appreciated incense but made it themselves. Su Dongpo (1037-1101), the greatest Song poet, took incense-making to an extreme, even a metaphysical level. It is said he once waited seven years just for a drop of snow water right in the center of a petal of a plum flower. He used that water to make incense he named “Spring’s Message from the Snow.”

“From Su’s story we can see that the character of a maker is very important in traditional incense culture,” says Wang Zhiguo, an entrepreneur and philanthropist in Beijing who loves tea, guqin and incense.

“The maker of herbal incense is an important ingredient, too,” says Fu. “Technically, it’s not really that difficult to make herbal incense, although you must collect and combine natural herbs according to strict rules of time and place. The most difficult part is whether you have or aspire to have a noble character (that conforms to the purest elements between Heaven and Earth).”

The scholastic tradition of inhaling and making herbal incense to elevate character has been lost since the late Qing Dynasty when China was in turmoil. Burning traditional herbal incense is rare even today, largely giving way to chemical fragrance compounds.

According to a report last year by the Science and Technology Daily, chemically compounded incenses release a substance that’s harmful to the lungs.

“But I believe that the spring of traditional herbal incense isn’t far away,” says Tang Muzhi, a painter and lover of tea culture in Shanghai who burns Fu’s herbal incense almost every day.

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