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Table of Contents
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 64-67

A view of ancient aroma culture through Museum-collected aroma utensils

Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Pudong, Shanghai, China

Date of Web Publication9-Oct-2018

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Hong Qin
Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Pudong, Shanghai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_27_18

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Aroma fumigation is one of the traditional Chinese fumigating therapies. Moreover, the aroma culture is a combination of traditional Chinese medicine culture with Confucian and folk cultures. As historical marks, medical relics such as aroma utensils, herbs, and books can reflect the development and prosperity of aroma culture in history.

Keywords: Aroma culture, aroma utensils, fumigating censer

How to cite this article:
Qin H. A view of ancient aroma culture through Museum-collected aroma utensils. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:64-7

How to cite this URL:
Qin H. A view of ancient aroma culture through Museum-collected aroma utensils. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2019 May 22];1:64-7. Available from: http://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/2/64/242581

Utensils for burning incense are called fumigating censers which function as sanitary appliances to create fragrance and warmth, kill insects, and clean rooms, clothes, and beddings by ancient people. The censers can be made of various materials such as gold, silver, bronze, porcelain, and pottery, with delicate design and crafts.

Now, please join me on a journey to ancient aroma utensils collected in the Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), to have a taste of aroma culture in ancient China.

The boshan censers unearthed from Han tombs [Figure 1] can be deemed as the earliest ancestors of Chinese censers.[1] When in use, the censer is filled with lighted spices, and the smoke will roll up and flow out of the holes in the lid. The cloud and mist created can make one feel like in a wonderland. The gilded bronze censers [Figure 2] are more valuable because they may be the possessions of the royals and noble class in the Han dynasty.
Figure 1: A bronze boshan censer in the Han dynasty (汉代铜博山炉)

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Figure 2: A gilded bronze censer (鎏金铜薰炉)

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The bronze ball-shaped censer in the Ming dynasty [Figure 3] is also called bedding censer, equipped with two annular dynamic axles inside. Moreover, a receptacle is installed in the axles to hold charcoal and incense. However, the censer rolls and the receptacle remains at a horizontal position, so the incense will never come off to burn the beddings.[2]
Figure 3: A bronze ball-shaped censer in the Ming dynasty (明代铜球熏)

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Xie Zhi [Figure 4] is a divine beast recorded in ancient literature. In traditional Chinese culture, it is regarded as a righteous beast and a symbol of justice and law. The charcoals and spices are lighted inside the censer in need of use.
Figure 4: A bronze Xie Zhi censer in the Ming dynasty (明代铜獬豸熏)

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The Bronze Kylin Censer in Xuande years (1426–1435 A. D.) of the Ming dynasty [Figure 5] is one of the large-scale fumigating utensils, with four characters of “大明宣德 (Da Ming Xuan De)” cast in the edges of the censer body. The censer can be separated into the upper part of the lid with hollow engraving of clouding stripes and the lower part of body symmetrically engraved with four mini-sized kylins. Its two handles are in the peculiar shape of an annular dragon.
Figure 5: A xuande bronze Kylin censer in the Ming dynasty (明代宣德铜麒麟炉)

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The bronze cap censers in the Ming dynasty [Figure 6] are used to fumigate and sterilize caps.
Figure 6: The drawing of aroma in the Ming dynasty (明代 《香薰图》) (imitation)

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It was drawn by 陈洪绶 (Honshou Chen 1588–1652 A. D.), a prominent painter in the Ming dynasty. There was a fair lady sitting in her bed, holding a censer in her arms. The aroma censers can be used to relieve nerves, sterilize air, and treat certain gynecological diseases as well.

It was quite prevalent to use aroma censers [Figure 7] and [Figure 8] in the Qing dynasty.[3] In cold winter, the folk people tend to use bronze hand and foot censers to keep warm. The burning of charcoal and spices can both bring warmth and refreshment.
Figure 7: An octagon bronze hand censer (清代八角铜手炉)

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Figure 8: Square bronze foot censer in the Qing dynasty (方形铜脚炉)

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The vase [Figure 9] is exquisitely engraved, and the smallest gridding is no wider than a millimeter. The calabash-shaped body is engraved with blossoms of peony, large and leafy, the grace of which is in perfect and natural harmony with the elegance of ivory. The pedestal is made of rosewood with fine crafts. The spices can be placed inside the vase, and the fragrance will send by itself to sterilize and clean air.
Figure 9: A hollow-engraved ivory fumigating vase in the Qing dynasty (清代透雕镂空象牙熏瓶)

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According to TCM, the human body is a dynamic equilibrium of yin and yang, and a balanced yin and yang reflect a perfect state of health. The theory of fumigation is to use the clear and rightful qi of fragrant herbs to dispel evil qi out of the human body and thus to prevent disease and strengthen the body. For instance, during the dragon boat festival, when the climate turns warm and poisonous animals such as snake, scorpion, gecko, centipede, and toad gradually emerge, the Chinese people will wear sachets, drink realgar wine, decorate the doors and windows with calamus and moxa leaves, and bathe in water boiled with moxa leaves. In addition to dispelling evils with fragrant herbs, they also make good use of the moxa leaf water to treat or prevent skin diseases such as eczema. 艾叶 (Ai Ye Folium Artemisia Argyi), with pungent and bitter flavor, warm proper and slight toxin, can function to warm meridians and stop bleeding, dissipate coldness and relieve pain, and descend dampness and kill insects. It is generally in external use. After drying, the moxa leaves can be made into moxa sticks, which are easy to burn yet without flame, with fragrance and suitable for moxibustion. The moxibustion is to dredge meridians and collaterals through warming. Moxa sticks are effective in warming meridians, dissipating coldness and expelling dampness and thus are frequently used as the fragrant herb for moxibustion.

The aroma culture also plays an important role in social etiquette. When they worship the Buddha, the ancient people embody their devotion and respect in the ceremony of bathing and fumigating aroma. The ancient emperors often award the favored officials fragrant herbs and spices to show their graciousness, and the officials then submit a statement to show their gratitude.[1]

The fragrant spices for fumigation include herbal species such as 藿香 (Huo Xiang Agastache rugosus), 木香 (Mu Xiang Aucklandiae), 茴香 (Hui Xiang Foeniculum vulgare), 佩兰 (Pei Lan Herba Eupatorii), 迷迭香 (Midie Xiang Rosmarinus officinalis), jasmine flower, tulip, and rose; woody species such as agilawood, styrax, frankincense, Sichuan pepper, 丁香 (Ding Xiang Syzygium aromaticum), and sandalwood; and the animal species such as musk, ambergris, and civetta. These fragrant spices possess efficacies of dispelling foulness, moving qi, and relieving pain, of which musk and agilawood are especially well-known.

Musk is of pungent flavor and warm proper, about heart and spleen meridians, with strong fragrance and can function to open orifices to refresh spirit, activate blood and dissipate stasis, relieve pain and resolve swelling, and promote fetal delivery. It is the main constituent of commonly used TCM patent medicines such as 苏合香丸 (Styrax Pill), 麝香保心丸 (Musk Heart-saving Pill), and 六神丸 (six miraculous-ingredient Pill).

The agilawood is one of the valuable fragrant spices the Chinese people are fond of, with pungent and bitter flavor, and slightly warm proper, about spleen, stomach and kidney meridians, and functioning to move qi and relieve pain, warm the middle and stop vomiting, and receive qi to tranquilize panting. It is mainly used to treat symptoms of distention and pain in the chest and abdomen and vomiting due to stomach coldness. The fragrance of agilawood is fine and gentle with lingering aftertaste and is thus among the top grade of spices for fumigation. During the prime period of Tang dynasty, Emperor of 玄宗 (Xuan Zong) ordered the construction of 沉香亭 (Chen Xiang Pavilion) with precious woods such as agilawood and sandalwood for his beloved 杨贵妃 (Consort Yang). The great poet of 李白 (Bai Li) once created a poem named 清平调 (Qing Ping Diao) to retell the wonderful story.

The valuable flower and gorgeous beauty smiling at each other, 名花倾国两相欢 which entertained the Emperor with constant joy and laughter. 长得君王带笑看。

Clearing up infinite unhappiness against the spring wind tender, 解释春风无限恨 on north of Chen Xiang Pavilion did they lean on handrails softer. 沉香亭北倚阑干。

In the Song dynasty, the seaborne trade between China and Southeastern Asian countries was prosperous, and there were frequent imports of fragrant herbs and spices overseas. In August of 1973, a song sea ship was excavated in the Houzhu Harbor in Quanzhou of Fujian Province. Fragrant wood and peppers are most abundant in quantity among all the unearthed relics in the cabins. They are real evidence of exchange of aroma spices between China and foreign countries.

(Qin Ding Si Ku Quan Shu) (《钦定四库全书》 Imperial Collection of Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature) in the Qing dynasty contains the 香乘 (Xiang Sheng, History of Aroma) by 周嘉胄 (Zhou Jiazhou) of Ming dynasty, with full 28 volumes. It is a pandect of aroma culture involving previous dynasties before Ming and can thus be deemed as the encyclopedia of ancient Chinese aroma culture.

Translator: Yingshuai Duan (段英帅)

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Qin H. A view of aroma culture through aroma utensils. Shanghai Art Crafts 2009;1:112.  Back to cited text no. 1
PowerPoint on Chinese Medical History. Museum of Medical History of Shanghai Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Shanghai Film Subsidiary Factory. Vol. 12. 1986. p. 5.  Back to cited text no. 2
Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Collection Treasures of Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Vol. 4. Shanghai: Shanghai Science and Technology Press; 2013. p. 35-7.  Back to cited text no. 3


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9]


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