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蘇洵《香》“Incense” by Su Xun









Grind the musk and sift the sandalwood to pour into the mould;

Get a drop of moisture from rose water and mix in the hedgenettle.[2]

A trail breathes out a thin plume of smoke,

A half-stick burns into a thick rod of jade.[3]

The Daoist priest always predicts in accordance with the scripture;

A fair lady only tests her skills of embroidery [in its company].[4]

[Near] the window or the table, [it’s] at one’s disposal anytime,

Without having to reach high for the magpie-tail burner.

* From Su Xun 蘇洵 (1009-1066), Jiayouji jiangzhu 嘉祐集箋注, annotated by Zeng Zaozhuang 曾棗莊 and Jin Chengli 金成禮 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 1993), 477.

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Jisu 雞蘇 is an alternative name of shuisu水蘇, or the hedgenettle (Stachys), which is still used for medical purposes; more on this later. [3] Yujin 玉筋 is often a metaphor for a chopstick. [4] I’m not quite sure what this line tries to convey. It seems to imply that embroidery takes a long time, and a fair lady would light an incense stick to make her environment more pleasant.


This week I’m moving to another form of aromatic product: the incense stick. Although Su Xun entitles this poem with the generic term xiang 香 for incense, his fourth line makes it clear that he is talking about the incense stick. It’s actually the most familiar type of aromatic product for me, but I had only been familiar with it as part of tomb-sweeping activities or in religious contexts until last week.

Of course, not everyone lives such an uncivilised life as I do. Song literati from a thousand years ago, for example, developed a keen interest in incense, and many made it part of their life, not necessarily for religious purposes or for paying respect to their ancestors, but for pure enjoyment of the fragrance. They did not just use incense but also made it. Su Xun’s poem starts with two lines about making his incense. His sons also enjoyed incense. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101), for instance, once prepared an incense powder mix and gave it to his brother Su Zhe 蘇轍 (1039-1112) as a birthday gift. But this was not just a Su family thing. There are a lot of poetic testimonies to pre-modern literati developing their own formulations and making incense for themselves and their friends.

Given the popularity of incense-making among literati, it should not be surprising to find that they each had their favourite or even exclusive formulae. Su Xun’s formula here seems rather curious with the use of hedgenettle. Its leaves are said to have a strong smell; they can help cure digestive problems and work magic into chicken recipes.[5] However, I haven’t found a single formula that uses hedgenettle for incense in transmitted treatises on perfumes, so we are probably looking at a kind of highly personalised incense here.

As I have just chosen incense as my first attempt at venturing into the real world of fragrances, I wholeheartedly sympathise with Su Xun’s last two lines. Incense sticks are perhaps the most accessible and affordable aromatic products. For improving bedroom ambience at home, one needs but an incense stick and a simple stick holder. In museums, I’ve seen magpie-tail burners, spherical censers with openwork decoration, and of course the famous mountain-shaped incense burners (boshan lu 博山爐), but most of them are such exquisite artefacts displayed in glass cases that the idea of owning one is a bit intimidating. I’m perfectly happy with starting with a simple stick holder without “reaching high”.

So, I got my first trial set of twenty kinds of incense sticks last Wednesday and embarked on my first ever journey to discover the world of incense designed for pure enjoyment of scents, trying two to four scents every day.

I started with single-scented incense made of agarwood and sandalwood on the first two nights. Every time I left my room and came back, I thought I was entering a temple. It’s not that I didn’t like the smell. I was just not sure if I would want to live and work in this environment. The scents and aftertastes indeed differed from one to another, and more interestingly, I started to find something enjoyable that I had never noticed before. I liked watching the smoke ascending, and the smoke of some incense sticks did dance more elegantly than that of others, which is quite remarkable. Also, some incense sticks left purer ash than others; some left ash that did not just drop but curled up in small or big circles without breaking off from the rest of the stick. It’s good that the trial set only contains sticks that each burn for about ten minutes, otherwise I might be at risk of freezing up, staring at the stick for an hour.

It didn’t take long before I started to explore various incense burners and incense forms that play with smoke. And the idea of daoliu xiang 倒流香 (reverse flow incense) suddenly sounded immensely attractive. I ended up spending hours appreciating the designs of horizontal and vertical incense cases and burners and struggling to decide which one to get. I was a bit astonished that I was lured into this world when I was just halfway through my trial set. I’m not sure how much longer this world will remain affordable, but a boshan lu would be nice after all!

(Left) Detail of a ninth-century hanging scroll from Mogao Cave 17 of Dunhuang showing a bodhisattva holding a magpie-tail burner.

Picture credit: British Museum.

(Right) A magpie-tail burner from the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) at Longmen Museum; picture from Lin Haicun 林海村 and Hao Chunyang 郝春陽, “Quewei lu yuanliu kao: Cong Qiantuoluo dao Huanghe, Changjiang” 鵲尾爐源流考——從犍陀羅到黃河、長江, Wenwu 10 (2017): 68.

The spherical censer is comparable to thuribles, but in the Chinese context, it can also be used as a personal object outside of a religious setting.

Picture credit: Shaanxi Provincial Museum

An example of boshan lu (mountain-shaped incense burner) that was particularly popular during the Han dynasty.

Picture credit: Hebei Provincial Museum

Lastly, my beginner's simple incense stick holder.


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