Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beware of the Chinese Censers, They Stink

My father's great phobia is being trapped in a Yankee Candle or soap store for more than ten minutes. He hates scents and smells. My friend Theresa is no different. After a few minutes at an incense peddler's shop in the Pangjiayuan Antique Market, which is Bejing's most famous flea market, she needed a break. I was in seventh heaven. The shopkeeper summoned a woman who spoke English and when I told them that I just wanted to learn about this, they began the ritual.

There are many ways to burn incense. It comes in coils and sticks, which are commonly sold in the places that sell funky turquoise jewelry and patchouli in the West. It also comes in a powder form. Before some bright person figured out how to make the sticks and coils, one would simply light a trail of powder on fire or...

The elaborate way to burn incense, to which I was happily exposed, involves seven tools and a comparable number of jars and dishes. In this picture below, the blue dishes each have a unique purpose. The one that the man is using has a screen upon which you set the charcoal and then you heat the charcoal.


Obviously, in ancient times the coal was probably removed from a fireplace, but today he uses a lighter that is akin to a blowtorch.When the coal is ready, he uses special metal chopsticks for moving it.



For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life. Agarwood (沈香; chénxiāng) and sandalwood (檀香; tánxiāng) are the two most important ingredients in Chinese incense. Copious amounts of each were on hand at this little shop. The two little blue dishes of the same size in this picture below are for these two substances. The cup next to them holds seven tools. I am not clear on all of their uses.


When the coal is hot, you bury it in another pot full of fine sand. The flat golden tool here is for tamping it down into a pyramid and then you use another tool to make a hole, like a volcano, at the top of the sand pyramid, down to the burning coal.


Finally, a little screen is removed from the smallest container and set on top of the "volcano." The sandalwood or other incense is sprinkled atop and the room is soon filled with a wonderful smell. 


To learn more, I suggest that you visit Peace & Harmony: The Divine Spectra of China's Fragrant Harbor.