This clay incense burner was discovered among ancient kiln ruins in the Shaanxi province of China. The burner, excavated in 1968, was created around the 11th century during the Song dynasty ’s rule of China (r. 960-1279), which is regarded as “one of the most brilliant periods in the history of Chinese ceramics.” It stands 19.4 centimeters tall and features five “naked, muscled men,” a leaf pattern along its neck, and an intricate floral design around its mouth.

Ceramic incense burner

19.4 x 18.6 cm, 11th century China

An incense burner like this one would have been used primarily for religious purposes [See Ta-Change 2008, 1].

Technical EvaluationEdit

The incense burner was made from local clay and coated with a gray-green celadon glaze, common among pottery produced during the Song dynasty’s rule of China. The two-tone color of this piece was created when the iron-derived glaze pooled in certain areas, accenting the burner’s patterns. However, the artistic taste during the Song dynasty was one that placed the importance of a piece on the shape rather than on the intricate design. Although the presence of glazes in China dates back to Neolithic times, the celadon glaze found on the incense burner was first used in the early tenth century, making it a relatively new technology at the time the burner was sculpted [See Wood 2011, 111]. The glaze, which is transparent and “extremely sensitive” to the thickness of the clay, gives the piece a “feeling of metalwork or lacquer” [See Wood 2011, 114]. After being sculpted and glazed, the incense burner was fired in a coal-fired kiln, located near the city of Tongchuan [See Rawson 2002]. After being fired under especially high temperatures, the incense burner was slowly cooled, resulting in its “subtle waxy or silken sheen” [See Wood 111, 115].

In 1958, excavation efforts began at the Yaozhou kiln site, where pottery was fired for over 800 years. Over three million various cultural relics have been discovered, including the incense burner, which was acquired in 1968 before being put on display in Berlin, Germany’s Museum for Asian Art.

Local Historical Context Edit

The Song dynasty, lasting from 960-1279, was perhaps the “most [culturally] brilliant era in later imperial Chinese history.” The first half of this era, referred to as the Northern Song period, was one of drastic changes socially, economically, and artistically. Prior to the Song dynasty’s rule, the nation was split into five warring states, each controlled by its own dynasty. The Song dynasty united the nation and Chinese politics drastically changed, causing a transformation of the arts as well. Previously ruled by a “hereditary aristocratic order,” the nation came to be ruled by bureaucratic scholar-officials who frequently “pursued artistic interests.” Artists began to stray from the over-sophistication of art and instead focus on the historical natural aspect. In 1125, China was invaded by the Jurchen, a nomadic group from northeastern Asia. Initially, the Song held a strong defense, forcing the Jurchen to retreat [See Jaques 2006, 1115]. However, the Jurchen force eventually prevailed and the Song campaign was pushed southward. The Song government reestablished itself in the south, and mainstream art was changed once again. Interest quickly grew in creating beautiful, pleasurable, poetic art inspired by the nature of the southern Song empire. Decorative arts flourished during this time, the most notable being ceramics, “which many connoisseurs consider the highest artistic achievement of the Chinese pottery.”

Along with the arts, both Buddhism and Taoism prospered during the Song dynasty, both of which practice daily incense burning. Incense burners like such as this one would have been used by a religious person to “counteract disagreeable odors, drive away demons, manifest the presence of gods, and to gratify gods” [See Ta-Change 2008, 1].

World Historical SignificanceEdit

Although this incense burner is just one of thousands of ceramic pieces created in 11th century China, its glaze is significant of both the time period and location of which this piece was sculpted. The particular green celadon glaze coating the incense burner was unique to the modern-day Tongchuan city, where the Yaozhou Kiln ruins reside, and its surrounding areas. Additionally, because this glaze came into use only about a century before the burner was sculpted, the piece is unlike any of those that came more than a hundred years before it, both intranationally and beyond [See Ta-Change 2008, 1]. Despite its physical uniqueness, incense burners like this would become commonplace in many of the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity [See Ellwood 1998, 214]. Although the Song dynasty collapsed in 1279, this incense burner is highly representative of an influntial culture that valued nature, education, and art.

Suggested BibliographyEdit

Ellwood, Grego. The Encyclopedia of World Religions. New York: Facts on File, 1998.

Jaques, Tony. Dictionary of Battle and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity through the Twenty-first Century. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2006.

Jessica Rawson et al. “China.” In Oxford Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ta-Chang, Lin, Guha Krishnaswamy, and David S. Chi. "Incense Smoke: Clinical, Structural and Molecular Effects on Airway Disease." Clinical & Molecular Allergy, 2008.

Wood, Nigel. Chinese Glazes: Their Origins, Chemistry, and Recreation. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

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Britannica Online, "Warring States,"

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"Eastern Orthodox Church,"

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"Kiln Site at Yaozhou,"

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