"A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people"
-Mahatma Ghandi
Incense: A Consideration of the Meaning of Life in Tang Dynasty
5 May 2015

Researcher at Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Xin Ge, presents on the development of incense use in Tang Dynasty, China

The Tang Dynasty was a dynamic cultural hub, exerting powerful cultural influences over neighboring states such as Korea and Japan, but also in turn open to external influence. The different strands that weaved this cultural vibrancy was one of the themes that emerged subtly from the presentation of Xin Ge—senior researcher at Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and editor of Hua Xia Kao Gu, the Institute's journal—given at the Culture of Incense: Incense Conference held in Nanjing from May 1-2, 2015. Xin Ge gave a focused presentation on incense paraphernalia and aromatics of the Tang Dynasty. "People living during the Tang Dynasty were comparatively opened minded, embracing new phenomena and influences. We are blessed and delighted that many of the artifacts produced during the Tang Dynasty have been safely collected and stored, so that we can easily view the vibrant Tang history," says Xin.

What is so Buddhist about incense burners?

"Many of the censers shown here [in this presentation] are similar in terms of their structure and appearance. They share the common characteristic of lotus flower decorations," Xin pointed out. In Buddhist belief, the lotus represents the idea of purity, and emerging from the mud and dirt of the world uncorrupted. If not the lotus, then there was usually some other decorative motif related to metaphysical concepts. One of the more outstanding censers shown in the presentation was one called Strong man with elephant mask bronze censer FD3:018. The top of the lid was designed with the decoration of a strong man figure wearing an elephant mask and kneeling on a lotus flower bud; the legs of auspicious animals support the body of the censer.

Tang Dynasty Five-legged censer gold-alloy censer with
flower ribbon chains and tortoise decorations with plate;
excavated from Famen Temple
It's more than just an exquisite design and workmanship—it also holds symbolic meaning, highlighting the desire of peace and luck desired by the Chinese.

Maybe it's a common assumption that people in ancient China were more conservative in interchange of ideas than people today. But during the Tang Dynasty, the spread of Buddhism is just one example of how people were in fact open to the trade of ideas. The idea of Buddhism originated in India and has had a presence in China since the Han dynasty. Its concepts and ethics gained great respect and support among the Chinese society, and from there spread to neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea. It motivated many cultural intersections, including incense culture and the production of incense burners among the three countries.
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