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王灼《張元舉惠江南李王帳中香》 “Incense within the Bed Canopy of King Li of Jiangnan...” by Wang Zhuo


“Incense within the Bed Canopy of King Li of Jiangnan, gifted by Zhang Yuanju” by Wang Zhuo [1]





At the West Tower, in the East Garden, spread the lush colours of spring,

Intoxicating the parallel-teethed old man every day.[2]

As [he’s] retired, the myriad of matters no longer [his] concern,

[He] smiled by the side of the snow[-like] beauty of Ehuang.[3]





Notepaper heaped up as [they] jotted down together the [movements of] Rainbow Dress,[4]

And continued to compose the new song “Inviting a Tipsy Dance”.[5]

In the Light-of-Jadeite Palace, bed curtains draped in red,

One foot of smoke from the burner at the zenith of the sun.





Things and time having passed for two hundred years,

In Jinling[6] nothing remains but the old landscape.

How has this incense come into your hands?

Isn’t it the marvellous secret passed down from those days?





[I’m] obliged that you provide me with such a desperately desired [gift]

Trying to get it since the New Year with an iron will.

[I] only wish to drink while reading “Encountering Sorrow”

On a bamboo pillow, a rattan bed under the bright moon.

* From Wang Zhuo 王灼 (1105-1160?), Yitang xiansheng wenji 頤堂先生文集 (Sibu congkan san bian 四部叢刊三編 vol. 432), 2.7a-b; see

[1] The King Li of Jiangnan refers to Li Yu 李煜 (c. 937-978), the last ruler of the Southern Tang 南唐 (937–976). [2] Many legendary figures in history are said to have extraordinary physical features, such as chongtong 重瞳 (double pupils) and pianchi 駢齒 (parallel teeth, presumably referring to some kind of serried rows of teeth). It’s recorded that Li Yu had both features; see his biography in the Xin Wudai shi 新五代史: [3] Ehuang 娥皇 usually refers to the daughter of Yao 堯 and wife of Shun 舜 in high antiquity. In this context, however, it refers to Zhou Ehuang 周娥皇 (c. 936-965), the queen of Li Yu and an outstanding musician and dancer. [4] Nichang 霓裳, also known as nichang yuyi wu 霓裳羽衣舞 (Dance of the Rainbow Dress and Feather Coat) or nichang yuyi qu 霓裳羽衣曲 (Music of the Rainbow Dress and Feather Coat), was a popular dance during the Tang. It was on the verge of being lost due to the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). Zhou Ehuang made an effort to collect fragments of the scores and reconstructed the music on the pipa; see Lu You 陸游 (1125-1209), Nan Tang shu 南唐書: [5] These two lines allude to an anecdote about Li Yu and Zhou Ehuang. At the banquet on a snowy night, Zhou Ehuang toasted Li Yu and requested a dance. He said he would only dance if she could come up with a new song. She immediately had some notepaper ready and jotted down her new song as she sang it; see Lu You, Nantang shu 南唐書: Here Wang Zhuo merges this anecdote with the story about Zhou Ehuang’s reconstruction of the music of the Rainbow Dress and Feather Coat. [6] Jinling (present-day Nanjing) was the capital of the Southern Tang. [7] Coloured characters rhyme.


The zhangzhong xiang 帳中香 (incense within the bed canopy) was a common type of incense in pre-modern times, and a specific eli zhangzhong xiang 鵝梨帳中香 (pear incense within the bed canopy) seems to have gained more attention than ever in recent years because of its presence in the popular 2011 costume drama Zhenhuan zhuan 甄嬛傳 (Empresses in the Palace). This incense is always associated with the eminent ruler-poet Li Yu 李煜 (c. 937-978), who is celebrated for his introduction of fruity and floral scents into composite incense that had been dominated by woody aromas.[8]

An example of where the incense within bed canopy might be used; detail of Gu Hongzhong's 顧閎中 (937-975) Han Xizai yeyan tu 韓熙載夜宴圖 (The Night Revels of Han Xizai), depicting the bedroom of Li Yu's prime minister Han Xizai 韓熙載 (902-970) who was known for his extravagant lifestyle.

Picture credit: The Palace Museum, Beijing (

Transmitted formulae of incense attributed to Li Yu include the ones with and without pears, and it’s difficult to say what exactly Wang Zhuo[9] received from his friend. But that is not really the most important thing. People of different times certainly have their own fancies of the “incense within the bed canopy” enjoyed by this ruler-poet who lived a dramatic life.

The interesting thing for me is that the legend is very much a living thing today. Chinese incense makers are competing to offer their versions of Li Yu’s incense, above all the “pear incense within the bed canopy”. Recently, I translated a proposal for a new perfume for China by a fashion house and really enjoyed the part about preparing “pear incense within the bed canopy”. Hopefully there’s a chance that we’ll see a French take on Li Yu’s bed incense one day!

The proposal I translated only briefly mentions the formula of “pear incense within the bed canopy”, but according to Chen Jing’s 陳敬 (fl. 13th century) Chenshi xiangpu 陳氏香譜 (Chen’s Treatise on Incense), there are at least three approaches:

1) Press out pear juice and soak some agarwood bits (and sometimes also styrax) in it in a silver container. Steam the mixture until the liquid is completely gone.[10]

2) Cut off the “cap” of the pear, scoop out the core and fill in ground agarwood and sandalwood. Put the cap back and insert a few sticks to keep it in place – very much like making tomates farcies. After steaming the stuffed pears, remove the skin of the pears, and grind them.[11]

3) Scrape off some inch-long agarwood bits, sharpen them at one end, and insert them all over the pear. Steam the pears until they are thoroughly cooked.[12]

Chinese incense makers who offer this legendary incense do not only play with the combination and proportion of ingredients but also the choice of the key ingredient: eli 鵝梨 (literally “goose pear”). It’s difficult to identify its modern equivalent. Many interpret it as yali 鴨梨 (literally “duck pear”, Pyrus × bretschneideri), whereas some propose other varieties. The most interesting choice is perhaps the quince (Cydonia oblonga), which is not widely available, if known at all, in China.

Along with my incense trial set came a booklet introducing the signature products of the brand. I was very surprised to find that they do not just use the quince for their “pear incense within the bed canopy” but even make coings farcis. The quince is not the easiest fruit to work with because its flesh is very hard. Scooping out its core much have taken some real effort!

Screenshot of the description page of eli zhangzhong xiang 鵝梨帳中香 from the Taobao shop of Zheng shifu's 鄭師傅.

As for the incense itself, fruity indeed, very different from the single-scented incense I tried earlier. But I’m not sure I like it better than the fragrance of the fruit itself or the flavour of the beautiful jelly made from it. The quince grows well in France, so perhaps a French version of Li Yu’s incense within the bed canopy is really something to look forward to…

The eli zhangzhong xiang in my trial set, although my fisherman incense stick holder doesn't really fit the bed canopy...

[8] For an overview of Li Yu’s contribution on this aspect, see Teng Jun 滕軍 and Li Xiang 李響, Zhongguo xiang wenhua jianshi 中國香文化簡史 (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2021), 130-134. [9] It’s irrelevant to the current topic, but I feel obliged to mention that Wang Zhuo also authored the lovely Tangshuang pu 糖霜譜 (Treatise on Sugar Frosting). [10] See Chen Jing, Chenshi xiangpu 陳氏香譜: [11] Ibid. [12] See Chen Jing, Chenshi xiangpu:


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