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Hot on the scent of history
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A Qing Dynasty three-foot censer with lotus patterns [Shanghai Daily]

A Qing Dynasty three-foot censer with lotus patterns [Shanghai Daily] 

The fragrance of burning incense permeates Chinese history and prehistory. It was burned to honor ancestors, treat ailments and perfume the air, writes Wang Jie.

In a harmonious scene from ancient times, a nobleman plucks a traditional Chinese guqin instrument while his wife lights pieces of incense (xunxiang) in the burner beside him. The scene pleases and calms the mind.

"Ancient Chinese people loved burning incense for different occasions," says Qian Handong, a collector of ancient incense burners. "They burned it in rituals to show respect to ancestors, to purify the air" and for other purposes.

Different incense burners and censers (xianglu) were used in different periods, though there was little detailed research until recently.

Qian, also an established journalist, fills in the blanks through his book, "The Glorious Glimmer of Ceramic Censers." Of course, not all were ceramic. They came in different shapes, sizes and materials.

He has devoted a decade to collection and study.

Use of censers goes back to the New Stone Age, he says. The shapes were derived from the shapes of the ancient bronze vessel or ding, usually a three-legged cooking vessel with two fixed handles on the rim.

Today, many excavated censers have three legs, some short, some long, while others have round or flat bottoms, he says. Handles can be long, fixed upright, or they can be rings; some incense burners have no handles.

The function of a burner determines its shape, Qian says. Some were swinging burners, held on chains by people who walked through a room to spread the fragrance.

Incense pieces or blocks required an open censor. Incense could be burned directly on the bottom. Long sticks of incense required different shapes to hold them, or they were stuck in sand. Some shapes were elaborate. A lid with an open filigree, or filigreed vessel, could disperse a heavy and powerful scent.

Ancient Chinese believed that incense ashes could cure or prevent disease, so they kept ashes in the censer.

The popularity and intricacy of censors was linked with economic development during the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).

At that time, people began to burn sandalwood to spread fragrance throughout a room, Qian says.

Censors were made of many materials, bronze and other metals, stone, jade, pottery, ceramics and wood. They were carved, inlaid, painted and otherwise decorated.

Craftsmanship reached its height during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

"Gold, silver or reddish copper were sometimes used in the casting," says Qian. "Brilliantly hued censer were popular."

Prices of antique censers, like all antiques, depends on history, quality, materials, workmanship, preservation and age.

Prices have increased dramatically in recent years. A censer that once cost several hundred yuan could fetch thousands of yuan, or dollars, today.

"Still, a charming old incense burner doesn't have to cost a fortune. We're not all looking for museum pieces," Qian says.

For big-time collectors like Qian, the value depends on three factors: history, rarity and shape.

"Of course, a censer with a clear provenance is also a plus, like those precious ones long kept in the royal palace," he says.

Distinctive decorative patterns and characters represent different periods. Qing Dynasty blue-and-white porcelain featured landscapes and flowers, while Song Dynasty (960-1279) burners bore shapes evocative of traditional papercuts.

Thus, censers and incense pleased the eye and sense of smell.

"Sometimes by burning incense one can experience serenity while reading or thinking," says Qian.

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