Through the Eyes of the Ancients: Glimpses of Tea and Incense in Classical Chinese Literature
Original Chinese article by Wang Lihong王麗紅
The evenings are growing crisp, and the Mid-Autumn Festival has already been celebrated, bringing with it the taste of moon cakes and the warmth of family reunions. Throughout history, incense has often played an important part in celebrating Chinese festivals; one traditional custom around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival involves making offerings to the moon, often including fruit, snacks and incense.
Herbs and incense are also important to another major celebration: the Dragon Boat Festival. Many traditions surround this festival, including eating zongzi, a type of sticky rice dumpling, and drinking xionghuangjiu—rice wine made with realgar—to ward off illness. To ward off evil and bad luck, people also wear perfume sachets and hang fragrant herbs like mugwort, calamus, and banyan twigs in their doorways. What, then, is the significance of these three herbs?
Mugwort, or wormwood, known in Chinese as “aicao (艾草),” is a medicinal herb, so hanging it on your front door represents a wish for good health and favorable fortune. It has a long history of use in moxibustion treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The mugwort is burned near various pressure points on the body, to stimulate circulation and the flow of Qi.
Calamus is also known as sweet flag and by many other names; in Mandarin it is “changpu (菖蒲).” The long, thin leaves of calamus are shaped a bit like swords have come to symbolize protection against evil spirits when the herb is hung in a doorway. The third common component of these talismans is twigs from the banyan tree, or “rongshu (榕樹),” a species of Ficus. According to folklore, banyan twigs will make a person robust and healthy.
As well as the importance of these fragrant herbs to celebrating festivals, incense and tea have long played a role in people’s everyday lives. From ancient scholars to today’s tea drinkers, we can trace the journey of incense and tea across the centuries in a series of quiet, personal moments. Let’s delve into some translated excerpts from classical Chinese writings on the topics of tea and incense—perhaps we can capture a little of this history to add to the fragrance of our next cup of tea.
The refined studies of a hermit do not require the drinking of tea or the burning of incense; the virtue of a scholar lies not in the lifting of a brush or the writing of a verse.
This passage emphasizes the spirit behind tea, incense, and literary pursuits. For those who spend time in tranquil solitude, any simple action can become a peaceful experience. Even when tea and incense are not physically present, we can carry over the peace they embody into our everyday lives.
A few bright windows, a painted scroll, a qin, a crane, a bowl of tea, a burner of incense, and a book of Buddhist scripture; a winding path in a secluded courtyard, a few patches of flowers, a few flocks of birds, a few pavilions, a few rocks, a few clear ponds, and a few floating clouds.
Though this verse is written in quite plain and simple language, in just a few words it paints a very vivid picture of a well-arranged study and the peaceful scene outside its windows. You can almost feel the scents, sights, and sounds; there’s a sense of both movement and stillness. It truly is a lively and exquisite scene.
Before my study grows a winding border of flowers; a square pond catches the moonlight; fish swim in flowing water. Beneath my small window I burn sweet incense while I read, a guqin on the table beside me. I pull aside the curtain to gaze at a crane; then make my way up to the tall pavilion for some wine. Drowsy from the liquor, I water the flowers and plant some bamboo; I listen to the guqin and admire the cranes, burn incense and brew some tea. I gaze upon the mountains from my small boat; or ponder the complexities of chess. Though perhaps there are grander joys in life than these, I shall not change my ways.
This passage gives a wonderful picture of a life spent in peaceful contemplation and evokes the elegant details of a traditional Chinese garden, seen through the eyes of the scholar looking out from his study. The Chinese word used here for “study” is closer in meaning to “reading nook”: unlike nowadays, in classical times people would seldom dedicate an entire room to their literary and musical pursuits. Every activity described seems to evoke a feeling of peace, from hours spent in quiet meditation accompanied by tea and incense, to tipsily watering the flowers or playing a round of Chinese chess. One cannot help but agree with the writer – who would exchange such a peaceful life?
The clouds are in the heavens; the moonlight on the earth. While incense burns and tea steeps, I leaf through the holy scriptures; all earthly cares are abandoned, all mundane thoughts forgotten.
These lines bring to mind a crisp, clear, autumn evening. As the author absorbs the wisdom of Buddhist writings, wrapped in the fragrance of sweet incense and steaming tea, all day-to-day cares and distractions are cast aside, allowing the mind a moment of pure, uninterrupted presence.
Life’s troubles and sorrows visit every household; only in humble farmhouses and simple pavilions is a different tale told. With incense and tea, we raise a toast with lively verse; all life’s ice and embers are cast out from our hearts.
At heart, this passage is an ode to a simple life, lived well. Even the wealthiest of households have their fair share of trials and tribulations; sanctuary can be found in peaceful surroundings and the pleasure of good company, with incense, tea and wine adding to the warmth and harmony of the gathering. The reference to “ice and coals” serves as a poetic metaphor for the highs and lows of human emotions.
Once, I cleaned a room, and placed there a long table, arranged with some carefree books and a sheet of old-style calligraphy. I set down an ancient ding and lit some incense, then swept away the dust. When I grew tired, I rested on the bamboo couch. At midday I rose and sipped some bitter tea, penned a few simple lines, and admired some old paintings.
Here, again, we see tea and incense as a feature of the quiet, personal moments. One can picture the table laid out with its “carefree” books of light-hearted writings and sheet of calligraphy—the writer is likely referring to a copy of a work from an old master, as a means of studying his style. The ding (鼎) that the writer uses is an ancient style of three-legged bronze cauldron, often beautifully decorated and made in many different sizes for varying purposes—a small one makes a perfect incense burner.
A hut with three rooms, a wooden couch with one pillow, a lit stick of incense, a cup of bitter tea, and a book to read; a nap beneath a tall pine tree; a bareheaded wander, humming a tune.
A delightful continuation on the theme of simplicity. Tea and incense feature once again as instruments for enjoying the moment and appreciating the beauty in your surroundings, however humble.
In the third month, tender tea shoots flourish, unspoilt by the plum winds; in the ninth month, watershield and perch are at their prime, and new sorghum wine is rich with fragrance; with clear skies outside our windows, friends gather: with incense lit, we admire ancient scrolls and paintings. Nothing compares to days like these.
In March, the new tea shoots have endured the elements of the “plum rain”, or monsoon season, and have emerged fresh and green, with no damage. In the course of our journey across the seasons to September we hear of an abundant variety of harvests; watershield is a type of edible aquatic plant, known in Mandarin as chuncai (莼菜) and a variety of other names.
On a moonlit night, I sit in the courtyard; a stick of incense alight in my heart, I keep company with the moon.
This poignant image of a person sitting simply on the ground, alone with the moonlight, gives us an insight into the spirit that incense inspires.
Spring evenings are suited to chanting, lighting incense and reading, listening to the teachings of a venerable monk, and quieting a myriad of thoughts. Summer evenings are suited to leisurely conversation, sitting overlooking the water, listening to the singing of the pines, and cleansing the mind of worries. Autumn evenings are suited to roaming the land, paying visits to forthright scholars, to rigorous conversation and dispelling melancholy. Winter nights are suited to tasting tea, pouring wine, and discussing the classics: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and The Plum in the Golden Vase; to dining on meat, and chasing away loneliness.
In this ode to the seasons we’re taken on a journey through a year of changing human emotions, from restlessness to melancholy. No matter the malady, nature always provides the perfect remedy. This passage contains some beautiful imagery—the sound of pine trees, in particular, is often vividly described in classical literature. Pine needles make a distinctive whispering sound in the wind, which is quite different from the rustling of ordinary leaves. Tea features once again as an essential ingredient of a cozy gathering of good friends, lively tales, and spirited conversation.
Deep in the mountains, incense is a necessity. Gather the roots, twigs and needles of the ancient pine and cypress, grind them together, mix in the wind and the dawn light; burning a ball of such incense lends a brightness to humble surroundings.
In this poetic piece, incense appears as the very essence of nature, allowing the writer to take pleasure in simplicity.
Burning incense and sipping tea is a natural habit of people in Wuzhong; an idle afternoon beneath a rain-spattered window would not be the same without it.
I couldn’t agree more with the people of Wuzhong, a district to the south of Suzhou city in Jiangsu Province.
Tea should be fine in both color and fragrance; true experts abhor a bitter taste. Incense should be subtle and elegant; those who love peace and solitude abstain from thick, heavily-perfumed smoke.
Simplicity and elegance are at the heart of things in this passage—the mind reflects the environment.
Buddhist scripture says: “Burn incense slowly, no flame must be seen.” This is the samādhi of incense.
One must approach burning incense with a sense of calm and a low flame—if the fire burns too wildly, it will parch the incense. Incense provides an apt symbol for samādhi, a state of complete stillness and presence. In Mandarin, this word of Sanskrit origin is rendered as sanwei (三昧). The type of incense referred to in this proverb is chenshui incense (沉水香), which is made from tree resin.
Good incense can cultivate virtue; good paper can make words last lifetimes; a good brushstroke can give life to flowers; good ink can make colors glow; good tea can wash away vexation; good wine can dissolve all sorrows.
The fact that we can read these wisdoms today certainly proves that “good paper can make words last lifetimes;” lovers of tea and art will surely feel the truth in the rest of these words, too!
Incense is meant to waft afar; tea is meant to be swirled and steeped; mountains are meant for climbing in the autumn.
This passage is very evocative of the sensual qualities of tea and incense; the gentle fragrance and curling patterns of the smoke echoed by the swirling of the water to cool it down before adding the tea leaves. Autumn, I suppose, is the best season for climbing mountains, with its crisp, clear weather perfect for lifting the spirits.
I sat alone in the Taoist temple, mind clear and still. I brewed a pot of tea, lit a stick of incense, and contemplated a painting of the Bodhidharma facing a wall. I closed my eyes for a moment, and unconsciously my mind grew still and my spirit clear, my breath became slow and steady. I hazily entered an altered state, and I thought I found myself bowing to the Bodhidharma himself, and we boarded a bamboo raft to visit the immortal Magu.
In this excerpt, tea and incense help bridge the gap between the realms of the physical and spiritual. The room or temple that the writer sits in is a danfang (丹房); a place where Taoist alchemists would attempt to create the legendary pill of immortality. This theme is continued with the appearance of the Bodhidharma, who is said to have once spent nine years gazing at a wall in silence. In the writer’s vision, they visit the spirit maiden Magu (麻姑), who is associated with longevity and immortality in the Taoist tradition. Her name roughly translates to “hemp maiden.”
On a moonlit night, the old Paulownia tree sways thrice; all cares are forgotten; all delusions cease. I contemplate: what is the fragrance of the incense, and what color is the smoke? What shadows appear in the light from the window? What sound do my fingers make as they move? What is this feeling of tranquil joy, of leisurely unconsciousness? What is this state of unthinking stillness?
Anyone who has a certain amount of experience with meditation will likely feel a sense of recognition in reading these words; in just a few simple phrases the writer really manages to capture the essence of the state of “emptiness”, and leave an echo of stillness in one’s memory.
Collectively, the scenes brought to life in this selection of classical excerpts really give a sense of the deep association of tea and incense with all things literary, natural, and spiritual. Time and time again we see them accompany books and scripture, and all the symbols of natural beauty that are familiar in classical Chinese art and literature: mountains and lakes; delicate flowers and twisting pines; elegant cranes and moonlit nights. In descriptions of the environment in which the act of drinking tea and lighting incense is set, we often see a focus on the natural elegance of simple, and sometimes even sparse, surroundings. The emphasis is on an atmosphere of calm and meditation—it’s a far cry from our modern times, where we sometimes find ourselves swept up in the desire to follow trends and outfit our tea tables and abodes with fancy, beautiful things. Perhaps, then, we can distil some wisdom from these writers’ musings: for ancient Chinese people, incense and tea were not simply objects of enjoyment—they represented a path to connecting with the inner self.
The Silver Leaf that Separates Ash from Heat, Creating Fragrance
Text & Picture而富居主
High-grade incense is generally not burned, but rather heated by charcoal embedded under a layer of ash. This method, which spread to Japan during the Song Dynasty (AD 920 – 1279), later became known as the “Japanese-style incense ceremony.” When heating incense, many tools are needed to assist you in smelling the beautiful nuances of Aloeswood. In addition to a high-quality piece of Aloeswood, you’ll need a censure, incense charcoal, incense ash and a mica disk (also known as the “Silver Leaf”). If your method and utensils are not commensurate with the quality of your incense, you will be unable to bring out the best of the incense, and that would be a pity, indeed. This would be akin to having delicious tea leaves rendered undrinkable due to deficient brewing methods or teaware— what a waste of a good cup of tea!
The majority of our readers are tea connoisseurs, so please permit the use of a tea brewing metaphor to help describe the heating of incense wood. The incense burner is akin to the tea kettle, and thus, once the incense wood begins to produce an aroma, you need to take the burner and the wood and smell it as you would remove the kettle from the flame to brew a pot of tea. In both tea and incense, charcoal is the best heat source. But, in modern times, charcoal, in incense and tea, has been replaced by electric heaters. As for the silver leaf, it is akin to the teapot or teacup the tea is brewed in. The most important elements for brewing tea are the water and the teapot. Teapots made of different quality materials such as stone, gold, silver, porcelain or Yixing will produce distinctly different cups, even when brewing the exact same tea leaves. For the same reason, the small, thin silver leaf, mica disc is just as important to the incense process as the teapot is to the tea brewing process!
An Introduction to the Silver Leaf
Quality: When heated, the best quality silver leaf will take some time to heat up, maintain its temperature, evenly distribute warmth to the incense wood, and cool slowly. A second-rate silver leaf is one that can both be quickly heated and cooled.
Shape: The finest silver leaves are concave-shaped, like a plate. Inferior silver leaves provide only a simple, flat surface for the incense wood.
Exterior: The silver leaf is best when it has a glazed exterior, an unglazed silver leaf can be heated but is substandard.
Appearance: The best quality silver leaf is hand-crafted with simple elegance; complicated workmanship makes for a more deficient product.
The silver leaf lies between the incense wood and the live coal buried in the incense burner ash. As the silver leaf is heated by the incense coal, its heat is transferred to the incense wood. The silver leaf can be made from many different materials which retain and transmit heat through varying processes and speeds. All of these factors directly influence the development of the incense wood’s aroma. According to the incense experience of Master Ju, the higher the grade of the incense wood, the clearer the effect the silver leaf has on its fragrance development. This is particularly true when low heat is used to elicit fragrance from the multi-variant Aloeswood. Thus, if our readers understand how incense develops and its rich history, they can skillfully employ incense burning even if their incense wood quality is not as good as that of others. With good utensils and a clever mind, our readers will have the ability to emit the perfect incense fragrance – many times more beautiful than that of even higher-grade wood.
During the Song Dynasty, poet Yang Tingxiu wrote “Incense Poem.”
Cut porcelain using a cauldron of green jade made from water,
Pared silver into leaves as light as paper.
No culture, and no evenly-distributed fire-power
Can close your majesty’s curtain when the wind does not blow.
According to the Incense Table recorded in The History of Incense: Burning Incense, “Atop the fire, arrange silver leaves or mica fashioned into the shape of a disc as lining for the incense wood. The wood should not touch the fire and the incense should develop naturally and slowly, without withering or parching the timber.” According to this record, the Japanese who practiced incense burning used mica and silver leaves interchangeably, disseminating a practice that has carried on for a thousand years and up to this day.
In the early years of the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), the Emaciated Immortal (臞仙) mentions in his book The Seven Demands of Incense Burning, “Choose the incense fragrance, but do not choose whether it will emit smoke. If the incense smoke is intense, but the fragrance is unrestricted, then immediately extinguish the wood. If you want the incense fragrance to remain undispersed for a long period of time, you must partition the incense wood from the fire. There exist silver-colored translucent tiles (明瓦), but they are course, poor and get extremely hot; they are not good for fire partitions. Jade tiles are only useful for their beauty, and the bottom of ceramic pots from the capital are also prone to breaking under the stress of heat. Use exquisite, polished discs that are a bit thick to separate incense wood from the fire.” (This is also included in the 15th scroll of Gaoxian Ming’s “Xun Sheng Ba Jian.”)
So, what kind of person was the Emaciated Immortal? According to the traditional Chinese version of Wikipedia, his real name was Quan Zhu (朱權) (AD 1378-1448). He was the 17th son of Emperor Ming Hongwu, the crown Prince of Ning, and highly influential in earlier generation’s study of incense. From childhood, Zhu spent his time in the Imperial Palace being educated in language and cultural arts. Among music, poetry, tea, and incense, there was not a skill in which he was considered unrefined. Of his many literary accomplishments, The Seven Demands of Incense Burning is considered his first work, profoundly influencing later generations of incense burners. His book was the second in history to advocate for improvements to the silver leaf. Breaking away from the use of mica and silver to separate the incense wood from ash and heat, he advocated for the use of polished pottery plates instead. His book states that “the sand at the bottom of the incense burner” is there due to the high temperature which would otherwise heat the bottom of the pottery until it was broken. Denser pottery sinters at a higher degree - the imprecise density, “A Bit Thick” (厚半分) used today is approximately 0.15cm thick. Regarding the use of translucent tiles in the place of low-temperature fired pottery (around 800°C), the degree of sintering is low which means the material can easily mix with other material upon heating. This influences the quality of the incense wood’s development, and thus should not be used.
The New Appearance of the Silver Leaf
Xiang Cai, a famous calligrapher during the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1279) and author of The Record of Tea (茶錄), once stated, “Tea is of light color and looks best in black cups. The cups made at Jianyang (建安)are dark purple in color, marked like the fur of a hare. Being of a rather thick material, they retain heat so that once warmed through they cool very slowly and are additionally valued on this account.” Just as the discourses of Cai and Zhu influenced earlier generations, they also allowed Master Ju the inspiration to create his plate-shaped pottery discs for lining incense wood.
In 2011, a special study of Jian ware (dark glaze) kiln firing was undertaken using the tea and incense kiln of the upstanding Teacher Lin (林老師). Jian ware teacup clay was fired at approximately 1300°C (close to or exceeding the above-mentioned temperature that broke the bottom of earthenware pots) and resulted in a small, thin disc that was slightly concave in the center. High-grade incense wood requires access to a relatively stable, low-temperature heat source, making the Jian ware disc more effective than the average Japanese-style mica discs in heating, developing, diffusing and containing the incense. The Jian ware’s ability to be directly fired into a disc shape, eliminating the polishing process, is more suitable for a variety of powdered or shaved incense woods, making its performance difficult for mica to match. Jian ware is also suitable for traditional incense burning with a hot charcoal and ash as well as for modern electric incense burners – greatly increasing its convenience.
Upon investigation of ancient texts and modern books, Master Ju came to believe that this research represented the third study in history to recommend improvements to the incense mica disc. However, it actually represents the first time in incense history that a material not made of mica or silver was recognized for its impact on the incense process. The material was re-named Incense Bearer (香承). Readers, do not look down on this small, thin disk. Out of the several hundred years Chinese people have chased after incense knowledge, it brought about the topic’s first specific publication. However, after repeated daily use, it was discovered that if the incense wood accidently came into contact with the incense burner, the wood’s resin was difficult to clean off if the silver leaf was made of unglazed ceramic material. Therefore, after discussions with Master Lin, it was decided that the ceramic silver leaf’s surface should be glazed. Later that same year, the ceramic silver leaves were kiln fired at the same 1300°C temperature as before, and given a dark purple-gold glaze. However, it was not only the ceramic silver leaf’s outward appearance that received an upgrade during this process. The glaze allowed the incense wood to develop more effectively, and for the wood’s sticky resin to be more easily removed.
After discussion with Master Lin, we decided to give this kind of high temperature ceramic Incense Bearer the name “Good Will.” With Master Lin’s approval, the details of the product’s manufacturing methods, temperature, etc will be made public and production can be determined. Our two principle hopes are as follows: First, that future producers will rely on the text instructions to produce similar incense tools, unless their changes will benefit the study of incense. Second, if our readers are able to continue the traditions of incense with this tool and afterward gain a bit of life tranquility, we hope they can share this good feeling with others. If so, this is a worthwhile message.
The Distinguishing Features of the Incense Bearer’s Materials
Traditional Japanese mica disc: Inexpensive and appropriately thin. The disc is penetrated by the heat of the burning charcoal beneath, but the incense wood’s temperature cannot easily be controlled. Incense wood resin left on the desk is relatively difficult to remove.
Iron and other metals of gold and silver: Transmits heat relatively quickly. The nuances of the incense wood fragrance change with the warming process, so this material is suitable for high temperature pan-frying. Then, and only then, can these materials properly develop the fragrance of incense wood.
Jade: Can be used, but is expensive. After repeatedly heating and cooling jade, its structure and density can be negatively influenced and the product may become unstable.
High temperature glazed ceramic discs: Slow and uniform heat conduction, this product holds temperature beautifully. As such, it allows incense wood to develop for a relatively longer period and performs best at low to medium temperatures; this product is especially suitable for use with the Agarwood.
Porcelain: Conducts heat rather quickly. Though this product is liable to crack under heat, its ability to maintain heat is second only to ceramic discs.
Translucent Tile (明瓦): This ceramic disc is fired at a low-temperature and easily absorbs other smells, and because this material is often dug from the earth, it produces incense mixed with smells of mildew.
Shale sheet: If this product comes into contact with Agarwood resin during heating, it will easily absorb the resin, making the shale difficult to clean. Shale also easily produces mixed fragrances and, if exposed to high heat for long periods, risks being cracked or ruptured.
In summary, each of these materials can be used as an Incense Bearer all have their own unique qualities. When preparing to burn incense, our readers do not need to give unequal emphasis to these differences – all of these products are ok to use! When using incense, different situations will arise depending on your mindset, location, quality of incense wood, and the material used for the Incense Bearer. Though there are many different product choices when it comes to practicing incense, there are just as many different personal preferences!
When focusing on Chinese Englewood and top-notch Agarwood, we suggest remembering the following “three no’s”: When heating incense, no producing smoke, no emitting resin, and no changing color. When none of these situations are present, that is when Agarwood incense is most beautiful and lasts the longest amount of time. However, some local varieties of Agarwood must produce smoke and emit resin before they will develop their best fragrance; but, that is beyond the scope of this discussion. The reason smoke should not be produced is because when there is smoke, the incense wood is too dry. As for the other “two no’s,” with a bit of personal experience and consideration the reasons will be revealed to our readers in the future.
From sipping tea and sampling incense, Master Ju gained the following insight: Tea can bring you closer to the gods, but incense reaches your spirit. Loving incense follows from the refined pool of elegance from which tea flows, and loving tea follows naturally from loving incense. And thus, together they may attain what the individual has never before reached; the hidden place where your spirit roams. To those lovers of tea and incense who are reading this text: through the wonders of tea and incense, all who have a quiet heart may reach this beautiful place.
In 2013, we studied the ancient use of and thought surrounding incense; its beauty and its flaws, finding beauty in flaws that correspond with current situations. We dedicated ourselves to developing incense knowledge and awareness, as well as the thoughts and methods surrounding the art of incense, and creating a model for spreading love and incense into the future. Love and incense are brought together by fate and, in the modern era, the two must forge ahead simultaneously. Perhaps you will be able to practice incense as the ancients did, treating the future with happiness, good intention, and transcendence.