This decorated metal vessel was made to be used as an incense burner. It has a bellied shape with three short, pointed legs. Nine colorful floral and leaf designs lie on a beautiful turquoise background on the main body of the vessel. These lotus flowers are the primary decorations on the incense burner. They are in vibrant colors of red, white, blue, green, yellow, and dark purple, and they are surrounded by scrolling leaf patterns. Above this main design is a narrow, dark blue band with white plum blossoms.
The underside of the vessel has three symbols of luck: a peach for immortality, a pomegranate for numerous heirs, and an orange for good fortune. The vessel was created in the technique called cloisonné. The wooden cover was removed when burning incense, as no sign of smoke is found on the lid.
Cloisonné is a technique for decorating metal. Making cloisonné is exacting, time-consuming and expensive. A craftsman first outlines a design on the metal surface, then bends thin wires into shapes to follow the lines, and finally solders them in place. Then, the specialist fills the wire enclosures, or cloisons, with colored glass paste and fires the object. The glass paste, or enamel, shrinks when fired. Usually, four or five rounds of adding enamel and re-firing are required to finish an object. At the end, the exposed wires are gilded.
One theory is that cloisonné was introduced to China during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) brought by the well-traveled Mongol invaders. It was a fully developed craft in China by the early fifteenth century when the rich and vibrant color effects it could produce suited imperial taste. This incense burner is of such high quality that it was likely produced for the Ming court.
The incense burner is in the tripod li shape: a squat rounded body supported on three short legs. It is based on li bronze vessels used during the Shang (ca. 1600–c. 1050 B.C.E.) and Zhou (c. 1050–221 B.C.E.) dynasties for offerings of food at ritual ceremonies. In later China, the function changed to an incense burner. This type of vessel became very popular during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and was used for burning incense during rituals, including ancestor worship ceremonies. The smoke from incense was used as a link between the earthly realm and the heavenly world.
This resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation
For the classroom
- Look carefully at this object. Make a list of ten possible things you think it may have been used for. What visual evidence can you find to support your theories?
- In what context would incense have been used in Ming dynasty China? In what contexts is it used today? How do special scents add to a special occasion or environment? Why has incense been valued across different times and cultures?
- Research what types of incense were used in Ming dynasty China and where this incense came from.