> printer-friendly image



Censer in the shape of Mount Bo (Boshanlu)
North China:
Eastern Han Period 1st-2nd Century C.E.
H. 5 in. D. 4 5/8 in.

The Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) completed and consolidated the reunification of China begun by the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.). It was during this time that Chinese cultural patterns that have persisted into the modern age were established. Through both war and trade, the Han empire was in contact with India, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean world.

Metal and ceramic censers are known in China from the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 B.C.E.). These included open-work bucket shaped bronzes in which burning aromatic branches or twigs were placed. The use of incense in China may have been stimulated by contact and exchange with non-Chinese people on the southern borders of Siberia, who were known to have inhaled narcotics from basins in which hot stones were placed.

Boshanlu censers, which were very common during the Western Han dynasty (221 B.C.E.-24 C.E, do not seem to have existed prior to that period. Within a short period, this type of covered censer was the repository of a fully integrated system of associations and meanings.

Sacred mountains
We do not know when and how the worship of mountains stared in China. However, by the end of the Zhou dynasty (1027-256 B.C.E.), a system incorporating inherited animistic, shamanistic and ancestor worshiping beliefs and sacrificial rituals had been organized according to a cosmology of heaven, earth, and man. Mountain worship occupied an important position in this system. Five Sacred Mountains were designated to receive royal sacrifices. These five represented all existing mountains and their earthly powers and, together with the Four Sacred Rivers, symbolically represented the power of the earth as a whole.

Among the powers ascribed to mountains, the ability to provide water was perhaps the most important for an agrarian society like China. More importantly, they were seen as the sources of the clouds that brought the rain. Cloud-breath, whose visible manifestation was depicted in art as trailing wisps of smoky clouds, was regarded as an auspicious omen.

The Five Sacred Mountains were also supposed to act as intermediaries between earth and heaven, where the Supreme heavenly Sovereign resided. When a new dynasty was founded, the emperor was supposed to visit the mountains, or at least one of them, to report to heaven through them and to receive the heavenly mandate for ruling the whole world.

Mountains were portrayed as places where all sorts of peculiar mammals, birds, and fish live. The deities who presided over the mountain ranges were described as composites of two or three creatures-human, dragon, bird, snake, or horse.

There were many myths and legends associated with mountains in general and with certain mountains in particular. Mt. Kunlun was described as the place where the Queen Mother of the West dwells. By the Han dynasty, it was written that a mortal could reach the upper Heaven and become a god if he succeeded in climbing Kunlun.

From the late Zhou period, the cult of immortals became increasingly important. Belief in a mythical land called Penglai, an imaginary mountain paradise inhabited by immortals and said to be located in either the western mountains or the eastern seas, began as early as the 4th century B.C.E. It was believed that humans could find this paradise and there obtain the elixir of immortality. This cult eventually became incorporated into religious Daoism

Daoism, one of the main streams of Chinese philosophy, first appears in a work called the "Book of the Way and its Power" (Dao de jing), attributed to Lao Zi (Old Master), who supposedly lived during the 6th century B.C.E. In answer to the question "What is the nature of the natural world?," Lao Zi replied that it is the visible manifestation of the Dao, the Way that contains within itself the matter and form of every physical phenomenon. The central teaching of Daoism is that one must live in intuitive harmony with the Dao. It was not until the Han dynasty that the teachings of Lao Zi were incorporated into a religious movement in which elaborate rituals and sacred writings were developed.

How to look at this work
A shallow dish with extended sides contains a coiled dragon on whose back is a flower. Arising from the flower is a bowl from which arises a mountain. We can see the peaks mounting higher and culminating at the top.

The top of the censer was made in two parts, a lower bowl and an upper section, which represents the mountain. It opens at the joint between the sections to allow for the placement and lighting of incense. The smoke escapes through small holes hidden in the top part of the mountain. This smoke was believed to represent cloud breath.

Since the activities of the animals and humans depicted vary from one censer to another, it is probable that mountain censers were made to suit particular situations, variations in religious beliefs, and purposes. Censers were probably used in state rituals, funerals, the cult of immortals, and the enhancement of daily life. They were also used for more mundane tasks like masking unpleasant odors.

How this object was made
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. This piece was probably made in the lost wax method.

  Home | Slideshow | Looking at Art | Lesson Plans |
Other Resources | About the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection | Arts Education Programs at Asia Society | Credits |
Copyright 2002 Asia Society