Antique Chinese Incense Burner Buying Guide

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Antique Chinese Incense Burner Buying Guide

Incense has long been associated with Chinese culture. Its use in Chinese civilization goes back thousands of years. From a cultural standpoint, all strata of society, from peasant to soldiers to holy men used incense burners. There is a wide range of designs used to make incense burners. This guide provides a brief history of incense burners, including distinctive elements from specific Chinese dynasties and identifies the different types and parts of an antique incense burner.  This guide also includes a list of Chinese dynasties, and helpful tips for choosing an antique Chinese incense burner.

History of Antique Chinese Incense Burners

Evidence of incense-burning in China exists from Neolithic times. Its popularity, however, seems to mirror the rise of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. Increased trade during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) brought Buddhism and new, more fragrant materials to the practice of the religion. By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-907), incense was becoming common, and was no longer solely used in religious and medicinal practices. The use of incense was most prolific during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when entire rooms were devoted to incense ceremonies. 

The incense process combines aromatic ingredients and fire, or some other heat source. To fully release the aroma, ingredients are usually ground into a powder. The powder itself can be bound together by a neutral material to form sticks. This allows the incense to burn slower and more evenly, and also makes it easier to handle. Stick incense was a later innovation, developed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Unlike its present-day use in Western society, incense in China has its origin in a number of venerated traditions. Chinese nobles and rich landowners scented their clothes to denote their social status. Scholars and men of culture engaged in incense appreciation contests, similar to present-day wine and spirit-tasting. Common people burned incense while praying as a tribute to heaven and to purify their homes.

Discover Antique Chinese Incense Burners

The variety and detail of antique Chinese incense burners is wide. Beginning with the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) we see the advent of gold and silver casting, which allowed for better craftsmanship and design. The Shoulu, or hand-held censer, is a product of this era. Held inside the sleeve, these bronze censers often contained warm charcoal or potashes for keeping oneself warm.

Incense spheres of gold and silver also appeared during this period. Truly a design marvel, the sphere held a tiny cup in the middle by means of a bearing. This kept the cup level at any angle so the incense would never spill. It was, in effect, the first gyroscope, an invention that wouldn’t see the light of day in western culture for another 1000 years.

The Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) saw the advancement of porcelain-making techniques, including the use of agate in the glaze. This imbued many censers with the sky green colour of the now famous Ru porcelain of the era. It also employed a new glaze nail-firing method, which made censers that were elegant and jade-like in appearance.

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) saw the addition of wood, bamboo, brass and stone censers, plus new innovations to the bronze tradition. One of these was a censer with an openwork lid, usually engraved with stunning designs, floral prints and ideograms. The majority of Ming ceramic censers were white and blue porcelain, though some did feature colourful decorations. Cloisonné enamel, also known as Jingtai blue, also appeared in censer work of this period.

Porcelain craftsmanship surged during the Qing Dynasty (1644 –1911 AD). This produced more refinement in the colours of glazes and accents, and greater elegance in shape and style. The Boshilu, or bowl-shaped censer, became popular. Skeletonising also came into vogue, as did coloured glazing and gilding peaks.

Parts of an Antique Chinese Incense burner

Part

Description

Base

Holds up the bowl, can be in form of a pedestal, tripod, four legs, or emanate outwards from the bowl. Can be round, square or any shape

Bowl

Usually round in shape, holds the incense, can be of various sizes, early period censers often had no lid

Lid

Sits on top of the bowl, may be hinged, can have perforations to allow smoke to escape

Handles

Usually one on each side of the bowl, hand-held model has one overhead, can be plain or decorative

Sphere

A  feature of hand-held incense burners, composed of two halves, contains the incense, has holes for smoke emission

Chain

For hanging censers and some hand-held types, usually attached to upper part of bowl

Cup and bearing

Part of some hand-held models, bearing keeps cup upright at any angle

Plate

A feature of stick incense burners, lies flat on a table with stick burning on top

Types of Antique Chinese Incense Burners

All antique Chinese incense burners perform the same function, but their style and design can vary greatly. In general, censers from the early period are simpler in design. They become more ornate through each ensuing dynasty as new materials and manufacturing processes are discovered. 

Type

Description

Distinctive Features

Considerations

Shoulou

Hand-held censer that originated in Tang era

Can be held inside sleeve for warmth

Royalty and nobility used these when walking in cold weather

Incense Sphere

Round ball in two parts with holes to let smoke out, suspended from a chain

Usually crafted from gold or silver

Contains a small bearing to keep the cup upright, which is now regarded as the world’s first gyroscope

Northern Song Porcelain

Extremely elegant censers made in five official kilns: Ru, Guan, Ge, Jun and Ding

Ru porcelain contain agate which was a never-before-seen sky green colour

Considered the forerunner of Celadon porcelain

Xuande Censer

A new series of censers ordered by Emperor Xuanzong

Feature gold, silver and precious stones

Very sought after by collectors

Openwork Lid Censer

Lid is perforated to allow smoke to escape

Easy to use

A style common to most mid- to late-period censers

Gui Style

Styled like a gui, or ancient food vessel

Extremely solid and well built without compromising beauty and elegance

Denotes power and social standing

Hanging Censer

Attached to a chain

Can be suspended for aesthetic effect

Usually associated with smaller sized censers

Cloisonné Censer

Bronze body decorated with gold wires and enamel glazes

Completely unique and created mostly during the early Ming era

Style originated in Greece with technology coming to China via trade

Shaped Censer

Takes the form of animals, gods, cultural objects

Can act as both a censer and spiritual object

Adds even more interest to the piece

Factors to Consider When Buying Antique Chinese Incense Burners

  • Ming-Era Bronze Censer rarity - Impoverished by wars, the last imperial court of the Ming Dynasty melted most bronzeware into new coinage, including most censers from the past three generations. This happened again during the Second World War when bronzeware was remoulded into arms, and during the steel drives of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
  • Inscribed Censers - Censers with seal script inscriptions are regarded as the most unique.

Typical Features of an Antique Chinese Incense Burner

Gilding

Some porcelain antique Chinese incense burners are gilded. This technique applies fine gold leaf or powder to the surface and greatly increases the value of the item.

Inlay

Many bronze Chinese incense burners are inlaid with gem stones and precious metals. The value is increased by both the intricacy of design and the inlaid material.

Motifs

Almost any aspect of a censer can be ornamented with religious or cultural motifs. This includes the base, bowl, lid and even the handles. Popular motifs include the Buddha, guardian lions, lotus flowers and butterflies.

How to Care for Your Antique Chinese Incense Burner

Antiques will quickly lose their value if the original tarnish or patina is altered or removed. The passage of time may also have made the colour a little darker or lighter, but it would be detrimental to the value to try to alter the colour in any way. Avoid using any special cleaners other than a mild soap and water. It is best to consult with a professional who can look at the individual piece to determine the best cleaning method. Ultimately, if dust and dirt is not bothersome, it is best to leave the piece alone.

Sought After Antique Chinese Incense Burners

Makers of antique Chinese incense burners are best considered by the dynasties in which they were made.

  • Shang
  • Zhou
  • Qin
  • Western Han
  • Xin
  • Eastern Han
  • Three Kingdoms
  • Western Jin
  • Eastern Jin
  • Southern and Northern
  • Sui
  • Tang
  • Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
  • Northern Song
  • Southern Song
  • Liao
  • Jin
  • Western Xia
  • Yuan
  • Ming
  • Qing

Accessories and Add-ons for Antique Chinese Incense Burners

An antique Chinese incense burner is a rare and valuable piece, and should be cared for accordingly. You might want to consider purchasing a glass display case to better protect and show off your incense burner. If it is extremely valuable, installing a dedicated alarm system for the display case is also an option. 

  • Incense
  • Display case
  • Alarm system
  • Display light

Finding Antique Chinese Incense Burners on eBay

Once you determine the type of antique Chinese incense burner, or censer, you want to purchase, visit the Antiques portal on eBay, click Chinese then start searching item listings. The Categories list on the left-hand side of the eBay page helps to narrow the search.

Searching for Antique Chinese Incense Burners on eBay

Search eBay listing titles for specific words when shopping for antique Chinese incense burners or censers. For example, to find a blue and white porcelain censer, type censer porcelain blue and white into the search box, and then click the Advanced button to customise the results. Also visit eBay’s Search Tips page for more advice on searching for antique Chinese incense burnerswith keywords. If you can’t find the exact incense burner you want, try shopping eBay Stores.

Conclusion

Antique Chinese incense burners are attractive things to collect. You may want to search for items from a particular dynasty. Alternatively, you may want to collect only certain types of censers, like Cloisonné style for example. You should also take some time to consider which material and colour best suits the decor of the home or the rest of your collectables. Once you have collected this information, you can buy an antique Chinese incense burner safely and securely on eBay.

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