The art of Chinese incense culture can be traced back thousands of years to the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Incense has been used to aromatize rooms and clothing, as an integral part of Buddhist worship and as a leisure pursuit for scholars and nobility. The Buddhist scriptures value the use of incense and it plays an integral role in Buddhist ceremonies. It was by way of Buddhism that the practice of using incense made its way from China to Japan.
The elaborate incense ceremony involves the use of various tools specifically designed for the ritual that have evolved over time, with porcelain used during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), Xuande copper stoves in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD) and various devices during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912 AD).
Incense culture continued to flourish in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), encouraged by strong trade, the spread of Buddhist beliefs and frequent exchange with foreign countries. It was during this time that the historical Silk Road emerged. The most commonly used incense spices during this time included agarwood, camphor, snowdrop bush (Styrax officinalis), clove and Dipterocarpaceae. Favoured by royalty, agarwood was considered the most luxurious.
It was during the Song dynasty that incense use in China reached its height, when nobility enjoyed it as a popular cultural pastime, constructing rooms dedicated to incense ceremonies. The Imperial Court founded the “Incense and medicine repository” to oversee the import of agarwood and other spices and medicines. As incense grew in popularity, scholars and aristocracy used it while composing poetry, playing musical instruments, hosting a feast or during meditation. Incense culture continued to be popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties for social events and everyday leisure pursuits.
It was said during the Song dynasty that one ounce of agarwood was equal to one ounce of gold; today, first-grade agarwood is one of the most expensive natural raw materials in the world. Created in the heartwood of an Aquilaria tree, agarwood forms after a deep wound is made. Mainly caused by natural forces such as animal scratches, insect attacks, windstorms or thunder, a fungal infection enters and harms the wood fibres. The tree then produces a resin to heal itself in a process that can take tens, hundreds or even thousands of years to form into a naturally scented product.