("magic mountains" or "universal mountain braziers") have
been created since the Western Han (2nd century
They are considered a typical innovation of this period. These were
incense burners in the form of mountain peaks rising over waves, symbolizing
the abode of the Immortals.
In the rooms of scholars, these objects were essential. The boshanlu generally consisted of a bowl, which contained perfumed water representing the sea, and a high cover, sometimes with three levels or even nine, representing a mountain.
The most significant feature of the boshanlu is the mountain-shaped lid, but its general shape can be traced back to the basic incense burner type ( xianglu ), which is linked to a related vessel type, the dou or stemmed cup of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (722 - 221 B.C.E. ). All three vessels, the boshanlu, xianglu, and dou, share certain common features: a chalice shape, a stem support, and a foot. Without the lid present it is difficult to distinguish the vessels one from the other. The dou and the stemmed xianglu predate any known examples of the boshanlu in ceramic or bronze. The early Western Han censers have no representational decor except for a knob handle at the apex of the lid, which may be a simple round protrusion or which may be rendered as a seated bird. The depth of the bowl is roughly equal to the height of the domed lid, which is consistent with dou design proportions and which yields a box-like appearance. However, the knob of the cover is quite small in comparison with Warring States dou. The dou's cover could be taken off, and, if inverted, its knob would become the foot of the lid. It could be used as a serving dish, according to most interpretations.
Now, it is said that the people of the Zhou dynasty (late 11th cent. - 221
By means of southernwood and mugwort the ancients communicated with the spiritual beings. They
did not burn incense, and therefore they had no censers [literally, "incense stoves."]. The
people of the Han time commenced to make
boshanlu, and what they burned in them were only fragrant species of orchids (
Finally, it is a striking historical coincidence of the production of the boshanlu, then a new type of art, simultaneously with the culminating point of the idea of the Fortunate Isles, which had then undoubtedly reached its climax, and held the minds of the people in suspense. Certainly this new and peculiar art motive, the hill-shaped cover, must have had some reason for its existence, and have been suggested by some idea. This idea surely must have arisen in the minds of the artists of the day, as the names of those artists are expressly recorded. All historical data referring to this vessel make it a Chinese invention of the time; and its whole make-up bears every mark of Chinese genius. Certainly, therefore, in searching for the idea which might have crossed the vision of the artist, we are justified in looking for it in the domain of coeval folk-lore, where our only recourse is to the legend of the Isles or Mountains of the Blest, a most prominent feature in the religious faith and yearnings of those days. It was undoubtedly more than a speculation of some religious adventurers and charlatans: it was a deep-rooted belief, nourished on the soil of Daoism, expressing the human desire for a better land, for a better immortal life beyond the grave.
When the incense was lit, curls
of smoke seeped out among the tiny crags and lid perforations like scented
mist. Shrinking himself in the mind's eye, a scholar could then imagine
that he was among those mysterious islands. The presence of ashes
in several excavated vessels suggests that they were also used to burn
incense at least in the burial setting. Analysis of the ashes verifies
the use of fragrant grasses and other plants, some of which appear in medicinal
remedies or were used to communicate the spirits. It has also been
suggested that the incense burned included
Cannabis sativa, marijuana, for increased communication effectiveness.
Liu Sheng was the elder brother of emperor Wudi and was given governance of the kingdom of Chung-shan, in the northeast with a population of six hundred thousand, where he ruled for 39 years until his death. His tomb was quarried into the hills of Lingshan, near Mancheng in Hebei Province. "On the floor of the sarcophagus [archeological excavators] found a bronze incense burner fashioned to represent clouds swirling around mountain peaks, thought to represent those of the fabled Mount Tai in Taishan, the stopping-off place for the soul before it progressed to the ten [levels of] hell [or the underworld]." Although not the most popular of emperor Jingdi's 13 sons, the sybarite Liu Sheng was buried in a jade suit of over 2,100 pieces stitched together by gold threads. The jade suit bestowed on him not only the status of a member of the royal household but also that of a Son of Heaven.
"Waves of the Eastern Sea lap its base, while a hole behind each little peak emits the incense smoke symbolizing the auspicious cloud vapor exhaled by the fairy mountain -- and, indeed, by all mountains, for according to traditional Chinese belief, all nature is alive and 'breathing.'"
Exceptional in design and workmanship, it is extremely well-preserved, with no signs of incrustation, repair, or damage. The inside of the pierced top shows signs of browning by smoke and, thus, was not merely a mortuary item.
(Sources: Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China (Berkeley: University of California Press; 1967, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1999. Fourth Edition, Expanded and Revised), pg. 82, Fig. 5.30 [Red background]; The Great Bronze Age of China, edited by Wen Fong (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1980), Color Plate, 95, pp. 330-331 [Different angle, Blue background]; Lee, Sherman China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 50, with dark background); Cotterell, Maurice The Terracotta Warriors (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company; 2004, 2003) pp. 148-153, On the floor quote from pg. 152.)
"Although the stars were seen as the final resting place for good
souls, there were also two halfway paradises for earthly souls. These were Mount Kun Lun in Turkestan to
the west, home of the everlasting jade, the substance that was believed to confer immortality when consumed,
and the mythical isles of Penglai, off the east coast. These islands were reputedly inhabited by immortals
whose good actions had earned them a period in paradise before rebirth on earth or prior to progression to a higher
state of existence.
1. Laufer, Berthold
Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty (Leiden: E.J. Brill, Ltd., 1909;
1962 reprint by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.), pp. 175-176, 178, 180-181, 191-192, 194-196,
198; with a nod to Cláudio C. Ratto for having me take a second look at this work.
Stein, Rolf A. (
The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought
; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 42, which states that specimens existed among the antiquities
collected during the Tang and Song, but the boshanlu
were no longer said to be made by that time., also pg. 43, note 159 on pg. 300; b&w
Fig 24 on pg. 47 is a photo and a line drawing of Liu Sheng's vessel.
Erickson, Susan N. "Boshanlu--Mountain Censers of the Western
Han Period: A Typological and Iconological Analysis,"
The Archives of Asian Art 45
(Dec, 1992), pp. 6-28, which is adapted from her dissertation.
Liu Xiang quote from pg. 15. The door jamb relief is mentioned in Note 1, pp.
20-21. A list of excavated boshanlu near the end of the article gives
133 pieces from 93 sites dating throughout the Western Han. Of these,
51 pieces are made of bronze, 68 of ceramic, 8 of gilded bronze, 2 of talc,
3 of iron, and one of bronze with inlaid gold -- Liu Sheng's, as depicted
near the top of this page.
Note: This is in no
way a complete list of all known boshanlu. As is referenced in another of
Erickson's articles, "The Freer Gallery of Art Boshanlu: Answers to A.G.Wenley's Questions" (
Oriental Art, Vol. 42, No. 4, 1996/97, pp. 27-38), there are a number of other pieces in museums in the
U.S., U.K., Europe and elsewhere. Some of these were purchased for
their eventual homes by collectors and have little or no documentation
as to their provenance. Thus, the age, location, and any details
of their burial hordes or long-time collection status are totally unknown.
The Chinese Exhibition, The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China
(Kansas City, MO: Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum; 1975), b&w photo pg.
363, an openwork censer of three-colored glazed pottery dates from the
end of the thirteenth century
Same figure as Stein, Fig. 22?;
Spirit of Han (Singapore: The Southeast Asian
Ceramic Society and Sun Tree Publishing Limited; 1991), pp. 38-39, 42-44;
Keswick, Maggie (Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture
; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; 1978), pp. 38, 40;
first Hebei bronze perfume burner (Sheng tomb) shown in Zhongmin, Han and
Hubert Delahaye (A Journey Through Ancient China; New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 128;
also shown in b&w in Sullivan, Michael (The Arts of China
; Berkeley: University of California Press; 1984), pg. 73;
Spirit of Han, pg. 43 (good detail in b&w), and Keswick, pg. 40, which gives current location as National
Palace Museum, Taiwan -- also pg. 119;
second Hebei piece shown in Stein, pg. 46 (b&w) and The Chinese Exhibition, color and b&w plates 146;
a green-glazed "hill-jar" from the Han dynasty, about 22.4 cm H (8-13/16"), is shown in Koyama, Fujio and John
Figgess (Two Thousand Years of Oriental Ceramics; New York: Harry N. Adams, Inc.; 1960), caption
on pg. 34 and b&w Fig. 12 on pg. 35, while another specimen known from a Chinese colony in Korea is shown
as b&w Fig. 131 on pg. 315, with caption on pg. 314;
Yanagisawa, Soen (Tray Landscapes (Bonkei and Bonseki), Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau; 1955), pp. 2, 77;
Behme, Robert (Bonsai, Saikei and Bonkei, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.; 1969), pg. 15;
Cahill, James (Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School; New York: Asia House Gallery; 1972), pg. 89.
as incense is mentioned in "In Search of Immortality,"
originally published in
Searching for Immortality, the exhibition
catalog of Weisbrod Chinese Art Ltd., Sept. 19, 2000, pp. 10-11 (
). The plant we term Cannabis
was mentioned in ancient Chinese herbals at least as early as the second century
when the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was first put in writing, per Bretschneider, E., M.D.
Botanicon Sinicum (as Article III in Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal
Asiatic Society, 1881, New Series, Vol. XVI, Part I, Shanghai, 1882), pp. 31-32.