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Arts & Culture

Arts & Culture

Fragrance and Poetry in Chinese Culture

A special exhibition where incense, poetry and calligraphy converge!
Exhibition Date: 11th DECEMBER 2020 – 28th FEBRUARY 2021

Oi Ling, one of Hong Kong’s leading Chinese antique shops, is hosting a special month-long exhibition from 11 December 2020 to 28 February 2021, where the heritage and art form of aromatic incense burning is artfully celebrated together with poetry and calligraphy in a most enlightening setting.


The exhibition is the creation of famed Chinese artist and distinguished professor Fan Hongbin of the Communication University of China, in collaboration with Oi Ling. The exhibition showcases a fine collection of artifacts and paraphernalia used in Chinese aromatic incense burning during the various dynastic periods. The setting was enhanced and framed by displays of multiple period-calligraphy of poetry artworks, which tended to be produced by ancient artists during incense burning rituals. This rare exhibition is a must-see occasion for afficionados of both Chinese calligraphy and the artform of incense burning. 


Incense in China and calligraphic poetry

The use of incense and aromatic has many forms and serves many purposes in ancient China. Based on archaeological evidence, the Chinese use of incense and aromatics occurred in four peak periods: the Pre Qin, Han, the Tang and Song, and the Ming and Qing.  In Xiang Cheng, Zhou Jiazhou (明周嘉胄香乘), a Ming dynasty monograph on the history of Chinese incense use, the text states that incense and aromatic were used to differentiate social strata during the time of the Yellow Emperor. Archaeological finds also confirm that incense and aromatics were used in different Neolithic cultures in China, coincidentally matching the time of the Yellow Emperor's period about 5000 years ago. Bronze censers excavated from the late Eastern Zhou dynasty show that the Chinese have been using incense long before the arrival of Buddhism in the first century. The spread of Buddhism and Taoism helped to spread the popularity of incense to all levels of the Chinese society.  


In the Song dynasty, there was a great effort by scholars to preserve skills and practices of the past dynasties by compiling encyclopaedia on select topics.  The inclusion of aromatics as one of the topics confirms its significance in Chinese society.  By the Song period, incense use had developed into a mature cultural practice that was part of a wide range of activities, such as religious (ceremonies and offerings to gods and ancestor veneration), medicinal, the practical (time-keeping), and mental cultivation, the latter of which is associated with the scholar-literati.


Similar to how Lu Yu elevated tea drinking to an art and a spiritual matter, the literati of the Song dynasty turned the use of incense and aromatics into an art form which echoes the fundamental values that they uphold. For the scholars and literati, burning incense was used to invigorate one’s senses to cultivate the self, and aided them in their meditation and pursuit of the arts.


When a scholar engaged in the act of incense burning and appreciation, it presented a moment of solidarity and meditation.  The Confucian scholar strived for intellectual inquiry and acquisition of knowledge, especially metaphysical matters related to nature and the universe (格物致知), and meditation was generally valued as an activator to understanding, thus formed a critical part of intellectual inquiry. The use of aromatics in incense took in a piece of nature—a microcosm—into the studio of the scholar, thus allowing him to interact with nature while indoors. The fine utensils he used to burn and appreciate incense cultivated good taste and the appreciation of craftsmanship and skill.  


The beautiful fragrance emitted from the incense invigorated the senses and served to prepare his mental state for reflection and discovery in his goal to cultivate the self (涵养修身).  The smoke tendrils rising heavenward from the burning aromatic was a reminder to the scholar to aspire to the lofty and noble. Often, the scholar would engage in other artistic pursuits such as calligraphy while the incense burned, the incense served to elevate the results of his scholarly endeavours.


Address: OI LING ANTIQUES, 72 Hollywood Road, Central



About Fan Hongbin

Fan Hongbin was born in 1960 in Ningxia, China. He graduated from the Fine Arts Department in Ningxia University in 1981. In 1991, he entered the training course of the Chinese Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and studied under Zhao Ning'an and Jia Youfu. In 1995, he settled in Shenzhen. He is a member of the Guangdong Artists Association, and currently serves as the chairman of the China Hong Kong Artists Association. Fan also is a distinguished professor at the Communication University of China. 

In 2007, The Fan Hongbin Art Museum was established by the Shenzhen Luohu District Cultural Affairs Bureau. From 2009-2015, his pieces won the China Arts and Crafts “Hundred Flowers Award” Golden Award five times. In 2011, the painting “Flowering Season” won the gold prize at the Guangzhou International Art Fair. In 2019, his painting “Sunshine on the Plains” won the Golden Award at the International Painting and Calligraphy Grand Prix Exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Also, in 2019, his joint painting exhibition was held at Muzeul National Al Unirii in Alba Iulia, Romania. 



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