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華岳《香篆》 “Incense Seal” by Hua Yue


Liu Ziyuan wrote a poem on the incense seal, rhyming on hui. [He] sent it to me for a poem in response. [I] hereby follow his rhyme.





Gently lay the carved disk and knock [the incense] off -

Gleaming, the faint fire lingers on alone.

Just as how everything works in the world,

[Its] heart turns into ashes only after all the rough zigzags.[2]

* From Hua Yue 華岳 (d. 1221), Cuiwei nanzheng lu 翠微南征录, Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987) edition, vol. 1776, 10.7a; see

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] The last line is a pun. For the incense, the line means “the incense only turns into ash after burning along the zigzag path of the seal”, which is a metaphor for “one is only disheartened after having gone through all adversities”.


Continuing my excursion into the world of incense, I got myself a beginner’s set of xiangzhuan 香篆 or yinxiang 印香 (incense seal) equipment, which I registered as a must try immediately after I learned what it is all about. And it was a natural step to look for poetry about this specific way of enjoying incense. As expected, the incense seal (very much like incense in general) in classical poetry often plays a supporting role in the background to help create an atmosphere for expressing a longing for one’s lover, contemplating philosophy or religion, or simply whiling away the day. I only found about a dozen poems dedicated to the incense seal, among which Hua Yue’s ending line struck me as particularly tragic and heroic.

As a rare poet who got first place in the imperial military exam (1217), Hua Yue was an ardent advocate of campaigns against the Jurchens to reclaim the lost territory of the Song regime in the north. Having overtly proposed and covertly plotted the execution of paramount ministers, he was imprisoned several times and beaten to death in the end. His poetry is praised as much as criticised for unconstrained expression of emotions and outright patriotism. The poem translated above hasn’t been dated, but the way he perceives the incense seal aptly speaks of his unyielding spirit and resonates with his lifelong struggles that came to a tragic end.

Hua Yue’s life experience aside, the first two lines of the poem represent a description of the incense itself, including some concrete steps to prepare it. An incense seal perhaps requires the least treatment of the raw material. For other incense products like incense sticks, incense balls and backflow incense “bullets”, you will need to add water or oil to form an incense dough for further processing, whereas for an incense seal, you only need to get some dry incense powder and mix different types of powder if desired.

However, incense powder alone doesn’t really make an incense seal. It is necessary to have some tools and, more importantly, invest some time into preparing an ash bed and shaping a proper seal to be lit. So if you want to have the scent coming right away, an incense seal is certainly not as handy as an incense stick or coil. But its charm lies exactly there: I love the calming effect of the process of preparation.

My beginner’s set is comprised of a burner, a seal mould, an ash planer, an ash spoon, an ash spade, an ash broom, two bags of ash, four types of incense powder (two agarwood, one sandalwood and one cypress) and a piece of flame retardant cotton. When they arrived in my hands, I found the minuscule copper spoon and spade totally adorable. The nailed-sized spade is only half as big as the mini one I have for handling seedlings!

As I was eager to prolong the preparation step, I disregarded the flame-retardant cotton and chose to use ash as the base. Very different from charcoal or firewood ash, the ash in my set is super white and light. Whereas it was easy to press it down, making a satisfactory flat surface with the planer was not easy at all. The copper planer kept on scraping off a film of ash as I moved it or left a curvy mark after I lifted it. Of course, you don’t really need to have virgin-snow-like ash to burn the incense, but I’m the kind of person who can easily be absorbed into such a task. I suppose I could have done this for a whole day, but to move on to the next step I stopped myself before I turned into a perpetual planer.

Then, place the mould – Hua Yue’s diaopan 雕盤 (carved disk) – onto the ash bed. My mould has a lotus flower design, and there are more designs such as eight trigrams, auspicious cloud and auspicious characters (typically fu 福/blessing, lu 祿/fortune, shou 壽/longevity, and xi 喜/happiness).

Spoon some incense powder onto the mould.

Use the spade to fill the design of the mould with incense powder.

Gently knock the powder off while lifting the mould.

By the way, this is what happens when it’s badly done. In this case, too much powder was fed into the mould, making the seal too solid to be knocked off...

Lastly, light the seal and watch it burn. This seal burns for 15-30 minutes depending on the powder used.

Some people scoop out the newly burned ash to stop it from spoiling the pure white ash bed. I thought it would be nice to watch the ash bed “aging”, but after trying different types of powder, I’ve realised something: although all the incense powder goes through the same zigzag path, not all ash looks and smells desirable. Fortunately, the process of removing unwanted ash is as absorbing as making it plain. So, this will make a perfect time-killer for another day when I don’t need to think about taking photos for my blog...


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