A censer is a bowl made to hold burning incense, often crafted from bronze, copper, porcelain, or stone. The first Chinese vessels designed specifically for burning incense appeared during the Western Han Dynasty, from 206 BC to 8 AD. By this time, ancient bowls like the ceramic dou or three-legged bronze ding had been adapted as vessels to hold ceremonial offerings, and eventually became the prototypes for incense holders.
Censers were made for several distinct uses that signified social status, from the incense baskets used to perfume bedclothes or garments to the small hand censers used as hand-warming devices in winter. Filled with incense made from dried aromatic plants and essential oils, many were utilized for religious or secular rituals, like funerary services or prayer offerings.
The simplest vessels were decorated with small geometric shapes, animal designs, or an ornamental band, while more complex censers made from precious metals might include cloisonné enamel or repousse engravings, as well as ornately carved lids. A few even took the form of jade or celadon-glazed statues, like a standing duck or a sailing ship. However, the most common form of Chinese censer was generally mounted on a three-footed base, or tripod, with two looped handles along its sides.
By the time of the Song Dynasty, from 960 to 1279 AD, incense culture was common to all classes in China. Along with flower arranging, tea-whisking, and painting, incense burning was regarded as one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar. During the Ming Dynasty, from 1368 to 1644 AD, censers were adapted to more modern forms, such as the rectangular bronze vessels with delicate openwork lids from this period.
Boshanlu, or mountain censers, were particularly elaborate. Shaped like a miniature mountaintop on a narrow base and suspended over a larger ashtray, boshanlu were inspired by the Taoist pursuit of immortality. The pierced covering that fitted over the boshanlu’s bowl was carved with intricate peaks to resemble the “mountains of the immortals,” allowing smoke to rise like mist from its craggy forms.
Another ingenious censer design was the incense sphere, consisting of a latticed metal orb that hung from a long chain and opened in half along a center hinge. This sphere surrounded a small cup that was weighted with a bearing to ensure the incense wouldn’t spill as it was carried.