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Table of Contents
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 138-140

Frankincense, a special spice walking along the silk road

1 Department of Nephrology, Yueyang Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Affiliated to Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China
2 Department of Chinese Materia Medica, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China

Date of Web Publication8-Jan-2019

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Baican Yang
Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_38_18

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Frankincense is also called “Fumigated land,” “Horsetail spice,” and “Godsend spice.” The alias “Fumigated land” shows its strong fragrance that can cover the whole land. The name of “Horsetail spice” implies its morphologic characteristics and mild effects, and another name of “Godsend spice” indicates its functions of relieving swelling and pain, healing sore, and growing muscle, as if it is the grace donated by God. The name of “Frankincense” displays its complex productive progress. With thick quality and strong fragrance, frankincense acts as daily supplies for religious activities and folk activities due to its low price and a wide range of uses in medicine and daily life. Frankincense shows the infinite charm of spice culture along the Silk Road from the distant Western Regions to the East. At the same time, it enriches the treasure house of traditional Chinese medicine and becomes one of the most popular spices in both eastern and western, nobility and common.

Keywords: Frankincense, fumigated land, Godsend spice, Horsetail spice, spice culture in the western regions

How to cite this article:
Yao T, Yang B. Frankincense, a special spice walking along the silk road. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:138-40

How to cite this URL:
Yao T, Yang B. Frankincense, a special spice walking along the silk road. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2019 May 22];1:138-40. Available from: http://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/3/138/249583

Frankincense's original name is fumigated land. It is warm in nature and can be applied to treat deafness, stroke with trismus, women's blood and Qi. In addition, it can help wine, regulate wind and cold, cure diarrhea, remedy carbuncle and ulcer.

Ben Cao Shi Yi[1] (《本草拾遗》 Supplements to Materia Medica).

When it comes to burn incense, four famous spices, namely agilawood, sandalwood, ambergris, and musk, will first come into most people's mind. However, in the family of spices, there is a special one which is lofty in the West and deeply loved in the East. It is frankincense. As a foreign spice, the name of frankincense not only shows the features of spice culture in the Western Regions, but also contains the integration between Eastern and Western cultures.

  Interpretation of Medical Name Top

According to archaeological discoveries, frankincense has already been introduced from the Western Region to China in the period of Emperor Wudi and Zhaodi of the Western Han Dynasty, which was then called “Fumigated land spice.” Then, frankincense has the alias of “Horsetail spice” in Hai Yao Ben Cao (《海药本草》 Extrinsic Materia Medical Introduction). Buddhist monks even endow it the name “Godsend spice.”[2] In conclusion, all the aliases reflect the origin, morphologic characteristics, and efficacy of frankincense [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Frankincense was introduced from the Western Region to China in the Western Han Dynasty

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Interpretation of alias

Before the Tang Dynasty, frankincense's official name was recorded as “Fumigated land” or “Fumigated land spice” in the past literature. According to Shuo Wen Jie Zi (《说文解字》Chinese Characters in Paraphrasing Texts and Words), the original meaning of fumigated is smoke or fire that spreads all the way up, which vividly describes the scene of burning incense. Then, land reflects the strong fragrance from frankincense itself and can cover the whole land beneath. Based on the above characteristics, frankincense gets the name of “fumigated land.”

The alias “Horsetail spice” displays the morphologic characteristics of frankincense trees in a vivid way. It is known that frankincense trees have unattractive appearances and most of them are low with prickles. In addition, their branches are twisted with some scattered small and ruffled leaves hanging up. Seen from a distance, the frankincense tree looks like a horsetail. As a result, it is called “Horsetail spice.” Besides, horse is the symbol of tractability and loyalty. The name of “Horsetail spice” shows the universality of frankincense because it can be seen everywhere in Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, the name also implies its mild functions and can escort the health of the public like a horse.

The name of “Godsend spice” is strongly associated with the characteristics and efficacy of frankincense. When it is for external use, frankincense can reduce swelling, heal sore, and grow muscle. It once saved countless lives of wounded soldiers in ancient wars. As a result, it makes undeniable contributions as a common medicine for military and works as if it is the grace donated by God. Hence, it is honored as the name of “Godsend spice.” Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica) also records that “frankincense is called as Godsend spice in books about Buddhism to emphasize its moist.”

Interpretation of frankincense

The name of “frankincense” not only shows its morphologic characteristics, but also reflects its strong odor. As everyone knows, frankincense is made up of resins [Figure 2] that come from local trees. When people cut the barks of frankincense trees, drops of white resins will exude from its incisions, which look like papillae. Besides, frankincense is featured with thick quality and strong fragrance that can move freely. Usually, local people begin collecting resins in the late March or early April and finish it in September. They cut narrow cracks on both sides of the barks and open a ravine. As a consequence, resins can exude from incisions and flow into the ravine. This activity is repeated every 10 or 15 days. As time passes, those resins from frankincense trees will dry and become substances like rosins. Later, people will scrape off those resins with knife and gather them together.
Figure 2: Resins from frankincense trees will dry and become substances like rosins

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Obviously, fumigated land, Horsetail spice, Godsend spice, or frankincense all emphasize its unique morphologic characteristics and functions. When burning incense, people can feel infinite charm of spice culture in the distant Western Regions.

  Frankincense and spice Culture in the Western Regions Top

Spice has been widely used for thousands of years in the Western Regions. As a matter of fact, it was primitively applied to worship the ancestors and gods. When burning incense in the temple, the smell can linger on pleasantly and even make you feel fascinated. In addition, tributes of the sacrifice are mostly fresh and perishable. Under the circumstances, spice can eliminate smells and prevent further infectious diseases because of its unique bactericidal and antiseptic functions. There is no doubt that frankincense is applied as one of the most popular spices. In fact, frankincense is both a precious gift and a rare medicine in ancient times. It is even mentioned repeatedly in the Bible. It was said that, when Jesus was born, three wise men from Eastern lands arrived and gave him a delicate box [Figure 3]. This box was full of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Obviously, frankincense is the symbol of ruler's wealth and power, and there is no difference from gold. Because frankincense was a daily necessity, ancient Egyptians even regarded it as something that was more expensive than gold. On the one hand, frankincense could be used to make mummies as preservatives and worship the ancestors and gods by virtue of its smell. On the other hand, charred frankincense could be painted under eyes, becoming a popular style called “Egyptian black eyeliner.”
Figure 3: Three wise men from Eastern lands arrived and gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh

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During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Buddhism and Taoism were highly praised by the government. As a result, temples were built nationwide and sacrificial practices were popular everywhere.[3] It was worth mentioning that burning incense [Figure 4] became the most common and general activity of Buddhism and Taoism. At this period, officials and royal members were all crazy about spices. Besides, ordinary people were also in great demand for spices. At this moment, frankincense coming from India, Western Asia, and North Africa was introduced to the Central Plains via Yutian (于阗) (Yutian was the ancient kingdom in the Western Regions. Besides it was also one of the four important towns in Anxi during the Tang Dynasty. Nowadays, it is part of Hetian Region in Xinjiang).[4] Compared to agilawood, sandalwood, and other valuable spices, frankincense is welcome because of its low price and a wide range of uses in medicine and daily life. Gradually, frankincense becomes daily supplies for religious and folk activities.
Figure 4: Burning incense became the most common and general activity of Buddhism and Taoism during the Tang and Song Dynasties

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  Functions of Frankincense Top

Belonging to the heart, liver, and spleen meridian, frankincense is pungent, bitter, and warm in properties. It has the functions of activating blood, promoting Qi, relieving swelling and pain, healing sore, and growing muscle.[5] The applications of frankincense focus on “opening,” including promoting every viscera, regulating Qi and blood, and dredging the channel. Its major functions are listed below:

  1. Stasis and pain. With strong fragrance, frankincense belongs to the heart, liver, and spleen meridian and goes straight into the blood. On the one hand, it can regulate Qi and relieve pain that is associated with Qi stagnation. On the other hand, it can also promote blood circulation and stop pain, which links to blood stasis. Hence, it is applied widely and effectively in the treatment of various pain syndromes caused by Qi stagnation and blood stasis. In clinical practice, frankincense is often used along with myrrh. It can be used in the treatment of dysmenorrhea, headache, rheumatic arthralgia, traumatic injury, and abdominal and chest pain
  2. Carbuncle and ulcer. This disease involves various clinical illnesses that connect to surgery, dermatology, internal medicine, ophthalmology, and otorhinolaryngology, such as skin ulcers, pulmonary abscess, periappendicular abscess, dental ulcer, and gastric ulcer. Those diseases share common symptoms including festering wound, partial swelling, and pain. Frankincense can act as a rare medicine to treat carbuncle and ulcer, especially applied in the therapy of different ulcers. It is also widely used to cure partial swelling and pain because of its functions including activating blood, promoting Qi, relieving pain as well as removing stasis, and decreasing swelling. It is worth mentioning that, if the ulcer lasts a long time and the wound festers, frankincense can play an important role to heal sore and grow muscle.

Throughout history, exotic spices introduced from the Western Region to the Central Plains by the Silk Road not only enrich our Chinese spice culture, but also have great influences on the ancient traditional medicine and public hygiene. Furthermore, those spices increase the treasure house of traditional Chinese medicine and make huge contributions to the further improvements and perfections of treatment technology about traditional Chinese medicine. Originating from the Western Regions, frankincense can promote every viscera and dredge the channel. Besides, it can also activate blood, promote Qi, relieve swelling, and grow muscle. Undoubtedly, it becomes one of the most popular spices in both eastern and western, nobility and common.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Chen CQ. Ben Cao Shi Yi. Anhui: Anhui Science and Technology Press; 2004.  Back to cited text no. 1
He T, Yang LJ, Yang S, Gao RH. The herbal research about frankincense. Lishizhen Med Mat Med Res 2016;27:167-8.  Back to cited text no. 2
Yang J. The trade and influences of frankincense between the Northern Song Dynasty and Yutian. J Xinjiang Norm Univ 2009;30:88-92.  Back to cited text no. 3
Wen CF. From agilawood to frankincense. J Southwest Univ (Soc Sci Ed) 2015;41:196-204.  Back to cited text no. 4
Li M, Li W. Research progress on frankincense. Qilu Pharm Aff 2012;31:667-9.  Back to cited text no. 5


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]


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