The Origin Of Incense, The Shape Of Incense, And The Benefits Of Incense

People’s Love For Incense Seems To Be Innate.

Incense culture in modern era, is the 1 of the most popular cultural practice following tea culture. Across the world, there are different incense cultures, and practice. If you dig into the root of the origin of incense, you will realise, incense culture is not a culture traversed across borders, nor civlisation. Strangely, in human history, people across the globe developed interest in incense culture respectively, coincidentally. There are also differences in understanding, practice, culture and usage.

Today, let me bring you across the world to look into main incense culture regions, dive deep into root of China’s 4000 years of incense history.

Main Regions of Incense

There are 4 main incense regions, as below


In the Arab world, the use of spices has a long history. Firstly, this is because the Arabian Peninsula has a special climate and soil for the growth of spices. Second, Muslims believe that the use of incense belongs to the Sunnah, which is the perfect combination of noble spiritual life and good material comforts. The Arabs use incense when they have a baby born to a family, the passing of an elder, the marrying of daughter, and when special guests come to their homes. In their religious activities, they even put a large incense burner to burn a large amount of Agarwood, Musk, Ambergris and other precious incenses. However, due to there is no theoretical guidance of traditional Chinese medicine in the Arab incense culture, there is no medicinal incense family in the Arab incense culture.

Muslims believe that the use of incense belongs to the Sunnah
Muslims believe that the use of incense belongs to the Sunnah
Arab Incense
Arab Incense


In Europe, because it is located in a climatic environment that does not grow spices, its use of spices is relatively late. The Big Maritime Navigation Era that started in the 15th century made Europeans realize the freshness and digestion effects of spices (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger) on meat. Columbus, Da Gama, and Magellan first set sail to find spices, and later became great navigators. Since there is no theory of traditional Chinese medicine in the West, the purpose of Westerners’ use of spices is mostly to condition the taste of meat and enjoy the pleasure brought by various scents.

European Most common Spices
European Most common Spices


In India, the record of incense began in the Veda. In early Hinduism, the special healing effect of incense was merged into religious behaviour. After the formation of Buddhism, incense became an inseparable part of Buddhism. Indians use incense regardless of precedence. They are mainly used for curry dishes, religious ceremonies, room incenses, yoga meditation, and essential oil massage. India produces a large number of incenses due to its geographical location, and they also uses mixed incenses, but its classification is obviously far from the theory of traditional Chinese medicine.

Silk Road
Silk Road


The Chinese use incense, but it is closely related to health preservation.

China has a long history of using incense. Incense culture has played an important role in the development of Chinese civilization. Its 4 main functions are as follows:

1.Consecration — Means of expression of etiquette;

2.Eliminate plague and filth — Important part of the herbal medicine;

3. Peace Andd Upright The Soul — Necessary item for religion;

4. Enlighten Imaginative Power – Literati’s reading companion.

Origin of Chinese Incense

In the Neolithic period 4000 years ago, the ancestors had already started to use the incense burner. A bamboo-shaped ash clay incense burner was unearthed at the Liangzhu archaeological site. It is 11cm tall and has 18 holes on the cover. Burning materials are some grass and sawdust with aromatic scent. Therefore, the culture of using incense in China can be traced back at least 4000 – 5000 years ago.

Bamboo-shaped ash clay incense burner
Bamboo-shaped ash clay incense burner

People in the pre-Qin days have realized that people’s preference for scent is a natural nature, and scent is closely related to the human body and can be used for health preservation. The emperors focus on health preservation. Other than burning incense in the palace, herb sachet is also hung on the carframe, and scholar-officials also tried to be the first to wear the herb sachet. Qu Yuan said in “Li Sao” that he learnt to wear herb sachet from the previous eminent, emphasizing both “cultivation” and “inner beauty”. Scent is not only a kind of enjoyment, but also a cultivation to the body and mind. The concept of health preservation with incense has a profound influence to the development of incense culture in later generations, and has become the core concept and characteristic of Chinese incense culture.

Incense Sachet
Incense Sachet

5 Main Medicinal Effects and Benefits of Incense

Even with the analysis from the perspective of modern medicine, the main curative effects of medicinal incense made of various spices can be summarized into five aspects:

1.Qi Circulation Effect

As the saying goes, if you have smooth breath, you won’t ache. The medicinal scent is spicy, warm and smooth, it circulates without elimination, and has a good effect of promoting Qi circulation and pain relief. The medicinal scent can help to circulate the blood evenly throughout the body, and of course it can relieve pain, such as pain in advanced cancer, dysmenorrhea, etc.

2.Divergence Effect

The medicinal scent will rise and disperse, it has a good divergence effect. For example, some people have pathogen penetrating into the interior due to external cold, and suffer from internal heat stagnation due to excessive eating. By using the medicinal scent, it will greatly relieve the above symptoms, and make the body accessible inside and outside. From this perspective, agarwood has a good preventive and therapeutic effect on spleen and stomach diseases.

3.Supporting Yang Effect

The medicinal scent is pure Yang, which can warm and nourish the internal organs, stimulate the circulation of the blood and cause the muscles and joints to relax, strengthen the Yang and remove paralysis. For example, someone who has been ill for a long time, has a cold sperm, renal injury, cold body and extremities, can greatly relieve the above symptoms by using the medicinal scent. From this perspective, agarwood has a certain preventive and therapeutic effect on cold sperm that causes infertility, loose stools and kidney deficiency.

4.Anti-inflammatory Effect

The medicinal scent has an antibacterial effect on common bacteria and viruses.

5.Muscle Eelaxant Effect

The anaesthetic effect of the volatile oil in the medicinal scent can slow down the contraction of human smooth muscles, fight against spasms, and have an inhibitory effect to the central nervous system. From this perspective, the medicinal scent has a good alleviation effect on asthma, gastro spasm, myocardial ischemia, and increased blood pressure caused by mental stress.

As a result, incense to nurture the character and preserve health became the internal driving force for the prosperity of incense culture in the Han Dynasty. Since the Han Dynasty, the development of Chinese incense culture has been included in the category of Chinese medicine and has become an integral part of Chinese medicine. The process and result of this inclusion is not transferred by human will, but by the formatting of the “cultural foundation”.

Shape Origin of Chinese Incense

Taking advantage of the prosperity of Chinese medicine, the incense trend was popular in the upper class represented by princes and nobles during the Han Dynasty. From the famous Changsha Mawangdui Tomb No. 1, a variety of incense burners, bamboo incense cages, incense pillows, incense sachets, etc. were discovered. Many incense medicines (magnolia liliiflora, galangal, lemongrass, eupatorium fortunei, cinnamon) were also unearthed from the tomb. Among them, there is an earthenware furnace filled with incense medicines, and there are still mixed herbs such as galangal, magnolia liliiflora, lemongrass. The “Cuojin Boshan (fairy mountain) Furnace” unearthed in the tomb of Zhongshan King Liu Sheng, Mancheng, Hebei, is in the shape of a fairy mountain on the sea, which shows that the people of the Han Dynasty regarded incense as one of the ways to promote longevity.

During the Six Dynasties, a large number of border and foreign spices entered the mainland, and the varieties of medicinal incense were basically complete. People examine foreign spices in accordance with the theories of Chinese medicine, and according to the production methods of Chinese medicine, they use foreign spices and local herbs to blend incenses, select medicines, formulas, and prepared a wide range of medicinal incenses. In terms of usage, there were used to incense the room, cloths and blankets, body and mouth, for beauty purposes, anti-filth, healing and Buddhist incense, Taoism incense, etc.; in terms of ways to use, they can be smouldered, wore, applied, fumigated, taken orally; in terms of the form of incense products, there were incense tablets, incense cakes, incense sticks, incense powders, incense balms, incense soups, incense drops, etc.

In this way, China’s medicinal incense system was formed during the formation of the Chinese medicine system. Medicinal incense has become the earliest, core and unique part of Chinese incense culture.

Tang and Song Dynasty Incense History and Impact

During the Tang Dynasty, the country was unprecedentedly strong, and the incense culture also achieved unprecedented development. Incense varieties are richer and more versatile. With the deepening of people’s understanding of the theory of traditional Chinese medicine, the health-preserving effect of medicinal incense has also been further recognized; along with the publication of Chinese herbal prescriptions, a large number of incense prescriptions have also been compiled and recorded.

During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the use of incense has spread to all aspects of social life, and the concept of health preservation through medicinal incense has become a conscious daily behaviour of people, just like health preservation through drinking tea. It has risen to the realm of spiritual culture. This makes the Chinese incense culture to reach its peak. In the Song Dynasty, literati used incense prevalently. They burn incense when composing poetry and making verses on a given rhyme, playing the zither and admiring the beauty of flowers, banquets and meeting friends, sitting alone and silently, on the desk and pillow side, in front of lamp and under the moon. It can be said that the presence of incense is ubiquitous.

There were also many works on incense studies in the Song Dynasty, covering a wide range of contents such as the properties, preparations, formulas, incense histories, incense writings, including Ding Wei’s “Tianxiangzhuan”, Shen Li’s “Incense Collection of the (Shen’s)”, Hong Chu’s “Incense Collection of the (Hong’s)”, Ye Tinggui’s “Mingxiangpu”, Yan Bowen’s “Incense History of the (Yan’s)”, Chen Jing’s “Incense Collection of the Chen’s”, etc. There are more than 400 kinds of incense prescriptions recorded in “Incense Collection of the Chen’s” alone.

Although the Chinese incense culture showed a diversified development trend after the Song Dynasty, the use of incense to preserve health has always been its fundamental concept. This is reflected in the fact that people still follow the same method of making Chinese medicines in the process of making incenses. In terms of ingredients, local Chinese medicinal materials are used more and imported pure spices are less used. Incense is mostly used to prevent diseases, cleaning the environment, etc.


In summary, the origin of incense is closely related to life. Religious use of incense was evolved later. Modern incense burning has gradually become a derivative of religion, and even many people still believe that incense burning is a kind of superstition. Therefore, the promotion of incense culture requires cooperation in many aspects, so that this thousand-year-old Chinese culture can be reserved, and passed on continuously together with the Way of Flower (Flower Culture) and Way of Tea (Tea Culture).

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