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Chinese Incense Tradition Newsletter

In the first Fragrant Harvest Newsletter on the Aromatic Traditions of Ancient China the main focus was on the role of gardens and the effect they had on the evolution of aromatic perception of the Chinese people. The multidimensional beauty found in gardens and the cultivated perception of it has played a significant role in helping people in China and around the world, in ancient and in modern times, to establish a refined and balanced attitude towards life.

The lamplight shines on my sleeplessness, Dragon
My mind clear, I smell the splendid incense.
Deep in the night, the hall rears up high,
The wind stirs, and gold is heard to clank.
The black sky masks the springtime court,
To the pure earth clings a hidden fragrance.
The Jade Rope wheels round and is cut,
The iron phoenix seems about to soar.
Sanskrit sometimes flows out from the temple,
The lingering bells still thunder round my bed.
Tomorrow morning in the fertile field,
I'll bitterly behold the yellow dirt.
In Abbot Zan's "Room at Dayun Temple: Four Poems (3)"
Du Fu

There are many other ways in which fragrance works its way into various dimensions of the life of a people. As any nation evolves, certain unique attributes arise which inspire individuals in that country to utilize the aromatic treasures found in nature for health and happiness. The Chinese people have a long history of innovation and creativity in many spheres of endeavor and with the passage of time they applied their knowledge and wisdom toward understanding how to use aromas for enhancing the experience of everyday life as well as for special occasions.

History of Fragrance in China
Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease

As in many ancient cultures, in the very early stages of their development, incense played a key role in the lives of the people. Long before any culture develops a specific identity, indigenous peoples living in simple natural surroundings discovered the virtues of all the plants amongst which they dwelt. Their very life was dependent on them and the natural reverence they developed for the botanical world was direct and real. Through minute observations of their qualities they came to realize which plants were good for medicine, paints, making clothes, tools, foods, etc. Those which possessed aromatic qualities were highly esteemed because they gave to life a special aesthetic radiance that naturally inspired a person to reflect on the deep mystery of life. In many times and places such materials weren't burnt as fragrant offerings to that hidden power which infused itself into all things.

I think it may be a mistake on our part to consider such offerings as primitive as compared to the more sophisticated forms of worship that appear later as a so-called refinement begins to appear as people band together to live in small villages, towns, and eventually cities which in due course of times become individual nations. The range of aromatic materials was no doubt limited by the environments in which they lived but their appreciation no less keen. At any rate their aromatic discoveries although very simple in nature often formed the foundation for the more sophisticated forms of worship that arose later.

Several main currents of religious, philosophical or spiritual practice arose in China over the vast extent of its history recorded and otherwise. Ancestor worship, Heaven Worship and Shamanism were prevalent before the rise of Taoism and Confucianism. After the rise of the latter two in the 3rd-4th century BC came the advent of Buddhism in the 1st century AD and Islam in the 7th century AD. From at least the time of Taoism and Confucianism incense had become a central part of religious worship. China had her own aromatic natural resources in the form of artemisia, camphor, cassia bark, star anise, angelica root, costus root and other roots, herbs and spices that grew indigenously.

With the opening of the Silk Road beginning in 500 BC becoming fully operative by 100 BC significantly increasing the greatly increasing the range of incense compositions compounded by the master perfumers of the time. Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood, Cloves, and Agarwood were held in great esteem by the Imperial families, the religious institutions, scholars and wealthy merchant classes..

"The Silk Road, or Silk Route, is an interconnected series of ancient trade routes through various regions of the Asian continent mainly connecting Chang'an (today's Xi'an) in China, with Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. It extends over 8,000 km (5,000 miles) on land and sea. Trade on the Silk Route was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and Rome, and helped to lay the foundations for the modern world."
--see "Silk Road" (Wikipedia)

Ancient Maritime Trade Routes from Egypt to China opening as early as 1st century AD also contributed to the range of aromatics for incense in Imperial China.

"As long as two thousand years ago, during the Eastern Han Dynasty in China, the sea route led from the mouth of the Red River near modern Hanoi, all they way through the Malacca Straits to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and India, and then on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. From ports on the Red Sea goods, including silks, were transported overland to the Nile and then down to Alexandria from where they were shipped to Rome and other Mediterranean ports. Another branch of these sea routes led down the East African coast (called Azania by the Greeks and Romans and Zesan by the Chinese) at least as far as the port known to the Romans as Rhapta, which was probably located in the delta of the Rufiji River in modern Tanzania. The Silk Road on the Sea extends from southern China to present-day Brunei, Thailand, Malacca, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Iran. In Europe it extends from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Italy in the Mediterranean Sea to Portugal and Sweden."
--see "Silk Road" (Wikipedia)


The links between China and India were greatly strengthened in the 1st century AD as Buddhism spread rapidly into the Far East. The monks traveling into China brought with them a rich incense heritage that was an integral part of the teachings of Ayurveda. Aromatic essences in the form of roots, resins, woods etc were burned at specific combinations at different times of year to not only celebrate various religious occasions but to purify the atmosphere of various diseases arising during the changes of the seasons.

With their deep knowledge of the mysteries of nature, they realized that certain types of beneficial aromatic molecules could only be released into the atmosphere via pyrolisis or destructive distillation by fire. Through both inner experience and outer experimentation they developed a highly evolved system of social medicine that served several purposes at one stroke. First of all they would call the people of their vicinity together to perform a yagna during seasonal transition times. Specially designed "Agni kunds" (fire pits designed according to specific geometric formulas) would be constructed that would serve as giant censors for aromatic formulas compounded for that particular season. The sacred fire would be ignited in the various kunds and men and women would sit together chanting powerful mantras that helped attuned their body and mind to the healing power of the Spirit of Life which although not visibly seen was alive and permeating the entire universe. At the same time they would inhale the purifying smoke which would also help in the purification process. The aromatic molecules contained in the smoke were also known to gently stimulate the higher brain center through the olfactory nerves helping the participants relax and experience a sense of reverence and receptivity to the sublime unseen Power supporting their life. This should not be equated with the effect obtained by strong hallucinogens but simply a natural means of awakening the finer sensibilities of the people at large.
--see Fragrant Harvest Newsletter "Incense"

This knowledge was naturally assimilated into Indian Buddhism and was carried into Tibet and China where it took on a form that was appropriate to that ancient land. The Tibetans especially evolved a very sophisticated of medicine in which incense played a major part and even to this the formulas created hundreds of years ago survive and are used in the composition of special healing incenses. The lively religious and cultural interchanges between Tibet, India and China thus led to a highly sophisticated incense culture.

There is an amazing section in the Avatamsaka Sutra(The Flower Adornment Sutra) which gives a clear insight into the vital role incense played in Chinese Buddhism and through it Chinese culture as a whole. I found this quote in the recently published in The Incense Bible by Kerry Hughes. This conversation takes place between a seeker of truth who has embarked on his spiritual quest to learn learn the way of the Buddha. In the course of that quest he goes to many spiritual teachers each of who impart to him some important aspect of the way. Here he meets with the Elder, Utpala Flower who is an incense teacher.

"Good man, I am skilled at discriminating and knowing the myriads of incenses. I know the methods of blending and mixing all incenses. All incenses mean specifically: all burning incenses, all paste incenses, and all powdered incenses.

I know also the places from which all kings of incense originate. Moreover I am still at understanding and knowing the incenses of gods, the incenses of dragons...humans and non-humans and so forth--all of the myriads of incenses.

Moreover, I am skilled at discriminating and knowing the incenses for curing the myriad illnesses; the incense for cutting off all evil; the incenses for producing happiness; the incense for increasing afflictions. The incenses for destroying afflictions; the incense that cause one to produce pleasure and fixation towards that which is conditioned. The incenses that cause one to produce disgust and wish to separate from that which is conditioned. The incenses of renouncing all arrogance and self indulgences; the incenses of bringing forth the resolved to be mind of all Buddhas; the incenses of certification to and understanding the different dharma doors; the incense to who use is received by sages."

Numerous valuable incense texts were created in China. One of the earliest being the Han Kung Hsiang Fang (On Blending Incense in the Palace of the Han) which is from the 1st century. More detailed manuals followed such as the valued Hsiang P'u (List of Aromatics) which describes incense ingredients in great detail, as well as the Hsiang Cheng (Records of Incense).
--see "The History of Incense" (Hikoshin Ryu)

Chinese medicine includes incense from early times. Few if any of the Chinese medical incense text have survived, on such document is called the Ko-fu in Japanese, and the Xian pu in Chinese. We know incense medicine played a major role in Chinese and early Japanese medicine because it was a major import item from China to Japan, as noted above.
--see "Incense Medicine" (Japanese Incense)

"Breaking down the five elements and their Ayurvedic relationship to plants and common incense ingredients we find them falling into five classes. The following chart shows the relationship:

1. Ether (Fruits)
Star Anise
2. Water (Stems & Branches)
Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Cedarwood, Cassia, Frankincense,
Myrrh, Borneol Camphor
3. Earth (Roots)
Turmeric, Vetivert, Ginger, Costus Root, Valerian,
Spikenard Indian
4. Fire (flower)
5. Air (leaves)

--see "Incense Making" (Botanical.com)

Language is a wonderful refection of culture and history. How words acquire meaning and change with time can reveal unique cultural characteristics. A great example is the Japanese verb for “to listen”, kiku . Like its English counterpart, kiku means “to listen” or “to hear” but it also has a completely different use that most English speakers would find puzzling. Kiku can also mean “to smell” but only when used in reference to smelling incense.

This use of the verb “to listen” did not originate in Japan, however. The Japanese adopted the usage from the Chinese term wenxiang , which translates into Japanese as monkoh, or “listening to incense”. Incense was imported into Japan from China, along with Buddhism. But, the story does not end (or start) there either. Both Buddhism and the use of incense originally made their way to China from India. In fact, the use of “to listen”, when referring to incense, can be traced back to the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. In the scriptures the Buddha’s world is described as fragrant and everything coming from the Buddha or his world was considered fragrant, including his words. So, smelling incense was one way that the Buddha’s words could be heard.
--see "Listen to Incense" (Blogging the fifth sense)

According to ancient literature survey of incense, a total of 258 kinds of Chinese herbs had been used for making incense. The most commonly used 25 Chinese herbs for incense are:
Aquilaria agallocha(agarwood) , Santalum album(sandalwood) , Rheum palmatum(Chinese rhubard), Lysimachia foenum-graecum , Lysimachia capillipes , Nardostachys chinensis(spikenard), Aucklandia lappa(synonym for costus root), Glycyrrhiza uralensis(licorice) , Aglaia odorata(Chinese perfume tree), Syzygium aromaticum(clove) , Cinnamomum cassia(cassia), Angelica dahurica(angelica root), Umbilicaria esculenta(rock tripe/a type of lichen), Illicium verum(star anise), Periploca sepium(Chinese silk vine), Foeniculum vulgare(fennel), Ligusticum chuanxiong(Chinese lovage root)., Kaempferia galanga( lesser galangal root), Alpinia officinarum(galangal root), Asarum heterotropoides(Chinese wild ginger), Magnolia biondii , Paeonia suffruticosa(peonya0, Angelica sinensis, Styrax benzoin(benzoin) , and Liquidambar formosana.


Links on Ancient Incense Trade
images of ancient incence burners
beautiful site on ancient incense trade routes
research on resinous botanicals and the habitats in which they grow
the incense route
great incense trade map
frankincense trail


Links on Ancient Incense Trade
images of ancient incence burners
beautiful site on ancient incense trade routes
research on resinous botanicals and the habitats in which they grow
the incense route
great incense trade map
frankincense trail

Incense Offerings-
Throughout the world people of all religions have used incense in their offerings. Their are many shared beliefs about the symbolic meanings of incense and some which are unique to a particular time, country and place. I thought it might be enjoyable for those of you who love this subject to explore some of the links associated with these traditions
These are but a few of the web sites available on this subject. You can discover many many more if you will go to a search engine like Google and put in key words-Incense Offering, or other combinations that pretain to the subject

Chinese Incense Tradition in Literature

For a Buddhist Monk

In a tangle of mountains,
in autumn trees, a cave –
hidden within,
a magic dragon pearl.

Poplar and cassia
overlook a blue sea;
rare fragrances waft
from a stone pagoda.

A monk since youth,
you still have no white hair;
you enter upon meditation,
in a frost-streaked robe.

Here there is no talkGuanyin
of the world’s affairs –
those matters that make
wild the hearts of men.

--from The Selected Poems of Chia Tao
trans. Mike O’Connor

We went from Yuan's palace to the Temple of Kwan-yin, which I often visited as a child. It also was a ruin, but it spoke to me of the dead thousands of weary feet that had climbed the steps leading to its shrines; of the buried mothers who touched the floor before its altars with reverent heads and asked blessings on their children's lives; of their children, taught to murmur prayers to the Mother of all Mercies, who held close within her loving heart the sorrows, hopes, and fears of woman's world. Ghosts of these spirits seemed to follow as we wandered through deserted courtyards, and an odour as of old incense perfumed the air. I went out and stood upon the tortoise that is left to guard the ruined temple; the great stone tortoise that is the symbol of longevity of our country, that even armies in their wrath cannot destroy.
--from My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard
Cooper, Elizabeth, 1877-1945

From its house a staircase of cut stone takes you down to the temple of Chion-in, where I arrived on Easter Sunday just before service, and in time to see the procession of the Cherry Blossom. They had a special service at a place called St. Peter’s at Rome about the same time, but the priests of Buddha excelled the priests of the Pope. Thus it happened. The main front of the temple was three hundred feet long, a hundred feet deep, and sixty feet high. One roof covered it all, and saving for the tiles there was no stone in the structure; nothing but wood three hundred years old, as hard as iron. The pillars that upheld the roof were three feet, four feet, and five feet in diameter, and guiltless of any paint. They showed the natural grain of the wood till they were lost in the rich brown darkness far overhead. The cross beams were of grained wood of great richness; cedar-wood and camphor-wood and the hearts of gigantic pine had been put under requisition for the great work. One carpenter—they call him only a carpenter—had designed the whole, and his name is remembered to this day. A half of the temple was railed off for the congregation by a two-foot railing, over which silks of ancient device had been thrown. Within the railing were all the religious fittings, but these I cannot describe. All I remember was row upon row of little lacquered stands each holding a rolled volume of sacred writings; an altar as tall as a cathedral organ where gold strove with colour, colour with lacquer, and lacquer with inlay, and candles such as Holy Mother Church uses only on her greatest days, shed a yellow light that softened all. Bronze incense-burners in the likeness of dragons and devils fumed under the shadow of silken banners, behind which, wood tracery, as delicate as frost on a windowpane, climbed to the ridge-pole. Only there was no visible roof to this temple. The light faded away under the monstrous beams, and we might have been in a cave a hundred fathoms below the earth but for the sunshine and blue sky at the portals, where the little children squabbled and shouted.
--from From Sea to Sea
by Rudyard Kipling

A large Chinese junk rises high out of the water; there are two or more decks aft above the main-deck, painted and carved with various devices; and the cabins are often luxuriously furnished according to Celestial tastes. If you look at any representation of a junk, you will notice that the rudder is very broad, resembling somewhat the rudder of a canal barge. In spite of its primitive look, it has, after all, something picturesque about it; but we fancy that we would rather contemplate it in a picture than sail in one across the Atlantic.

On the deck of a junk is always to be found a josshouse or temple, in front of which the crew keep incense, sticks, and perfumed paper continually burning. When a calm overtakes an English vessel, the sailors and passengers are always supposed to try what “whistling for a wind” will effect. In lieu of this method of “raising the wind,” a Chinese sailor shapes little junks out of paper, and sets them afloat on the water as a propitiatory service to the divinity who has the welfare of seamen under his especial care.

The bamboo roofs slide in a sort of telescope fashion, and the whole interior space can be inclosed and divided. The bow of the boat, whether large or small, is always the family joss house; and the water is starred at night with the dull, melancholy glimmer, fainter, though redder than a glow-worm’s light, of thousands of burning joss-sticks, making the air heavy with the odor of incense. Unlike the houses of the poor on shore, the house boats are models of cleanliness, and space is utilized and economized by adaptations more ingenious than those of a tiny yacht. These boats, which form neat rooms with matted seats by day, turn into beds at night, and the children have separate “rooms.”
--from The Golden Chersonese and the way thither
by Isabella L. Bird

Though the child was a month old the mother was too wan and weak to leave her couch. She was dressed, however, in festal robes, and received her guests with many gracious words and apologies. Of course only ladies were present. The great covered court was converted into a large shrine. One could imagine they were looking into the main hall of a temple, only that everything was so clean and beautiful. From the centre of the shrine a Goddess of Mercy looked down complacently upon the array of fruit, nuts, sweetmeats and cakes spread out before her. Many candles in their tall candlesticks were burning on every side. Before her was a great bronze incense-burner, from which many sticks of incense sent out their fragrant odour on the air. As each guest passed through the court, she took a stick from the pile, lit it, and, with a word of prayer, added it to the number.
--from Court Life in China
by Isaac Taylor Headland

After the guests had all arrived a princess--sister of the hostess--accompanied by two of the leading guests, descended into the paved court and took her place before the altar. Deep-toned bells were touched by small boys whose shaven heads and priestly robes denoted that they, like little Samuel, were being brought up within the courts of the temple. The Princess took a great bunch of incense in her two hands, one of her attendants lit it with a torch prepared for that purpose, the flame and smoke ascended amid the deep tones of the bells, as she prostrated herself before the goddess. She looked like a beautiful fairy herself as she stood with the flaming bunch of incense held high above her head. Three times she prostrated herself and nine times she bent forward, fulfilling all the requirements of the law.
--from Court Life in China
by Isaac Taylor Headland

The house was a small, unpretentious building, with mud walls and a tiled roof. The interior was like that of all the homes around. If you had seen one, you had a good idea of the appearance of the rest. You entered the guest-hall, where on the wall at the farther end hung a large centre scroll, representing the "Ruler of Heaven," before which incense was lighted morning and evening. On either side of the idol, and on all the pillars you would see paper scrolls pasted up, with trite sayings written in flowery phrases, such as—"If in your house you walk circumspectly, then when you leave your home you will associate with virtuous friends only."

"If the house is clean and beautiful, an excellent wind will be wafted through it."

"If the flowers give out their fragrance, a bright moon will shine upon them."
--from Everlasting Pearl, One of China's Women
by Anna Magdalena Johannsen

After a month had elapsed, the relatives and neighbours were invited to a feast in honour of the child. Candles and incense were lighted before the gods, the babe was presented to them, and henceforward she was regarded as under their protection. When the little girl was a year old, the relatives assembled again. The grandmother had brought another lot of presents, among them some beautifully embroidered shoes, as the time had come for the child to learn to walk. She was old enough to notice things, and the baby eyes looked delightedly at her feet, that had never worn shoes before, now so beautifully adorned in the gayest of colours. Again a thank-offering was given to the gods. The grandmother carried the child forward, and this time the baby fingers had to hold the incense that was lighted before the sacred picture.
--from Everlasting Pearl, One of China's Women
by Anna Magdalena Johannsen

Jade Censer Perfume recipe

2 ounces of Agarwood Attar

1 ounce of Sandalwood EO

1/2 ounce of Shamama Attar

1/15th ounce of Star Anise EO

1/4 ounce Labdanum Absolute "Incense Note"

1/4 ounce Cassia Bark CO2 Total Extract

1/3 ounce Frankincense EO

2/3 ounce Patchouli EO

1/8 ounce Clove Bud CO2 Select Extract