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Incensed: Culture mavens inhale history

2014-03-27 12:59:28

(Shanghai Daily)


Incense of intellectuals

Until the early 20th century, incense was an integral part of Chinese intellectual life for a long time.

Myriad famous poets and scholar-officials have written about the beauty of incense in their pursuit of a life detached from materialism.

For ancient men of letters, burning incense meant both pleasure and meditation. Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), a calligrapher and scholar-official in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), called himself an “addict to incense.”

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, renowned scholars, however poor they were, would not live without burning incense or drinking tea — two things long believed to reveal noble tastes.

Of all the great ancient poems and prose dedicated to the beauty of incense, the one written by Tu Long (1543-1605), a well-known scholar in the Ming Dynasty, sums up its appeal.

When detached hermits sit down and discuss moral issues, lighting incense will cool their hearts and minds;

When one feels lonely and lost in wee hours, lighting incense will soothe mind and body;

When one writes calligraphy by the window, recites rhymed articles, or reads books at night, lighting incense will boost the spirit and prevent one from becoming sleepy;

When a man and his better half are together and talk in private, lighting incense in a burner placed in their interlinked hands will deepen their passion toward each other;

When one gets up from a nap at noon, sits by the window and drinks tea while it rains outside, lighting incense will please the body and soul;

And when one awakens from being drunk at a feast and plays qin to the bright moon and the high mountain, it’s most proper to light incense and see it dancing around curtains and reaching near and far at will, driving away evils.

Buddhist incense

Incense is very important in Buddhist culture.

In the famous “Leng Yan Jing” or “Shurangama Sutra,” translated into Chinese in AD 705, it was recorded that a child became enlightened through inhaling the invisible fragrance of agarwood.

The child said: “I observe that the smell is neither wood itself nor void, neither smoke nor fire. When it’s gone, it leaves no trace. When it comes, you don’t know where it comes from ...”

Herbal incense that was lighted and produced smoke did not appear until the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In the past, herbal incense was often formed into small balls that were warmed by charcoal to produce fragrance but no smoke.

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