Two centuries before the common era, ideas about distant mountains being home to immortal beings started to gain popularity in the Chinese imperial courts. The first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shihuang (r. 221 – 210 BCE), in his quest for an elixir that would extend his life, even sent a mission to investigate the location of the isles of immortals thought to exist off the eastern coast. Ideas like these reflect the social, political, and religious significations of mountains in the ancient Chinese imagination.
As a generic type, boshan lu 博山爐, often translated as “mountain censers,” represent a long East Asian artistic tradition of crafting incense burners in the shape of a mountain. The form first originated in the second century BCE and continued (with slowly lessening popularity) for hundreds of years. The apex production of mountain censers was during the Han Dynasty (202-BCE — 220 CE) when bronze foundries perfected the delicate craftsmanship necessary to create ornate mountainscapes crawling with people and fantastic creatures. Apertures, often hidden within the craggy rock face, would emit the smell of burning incense and animate the visual scene with curls of rising smoke.
After the Han, the mountain censer was more frequently made in ceramic and regional variations started appear, sometimes creating an object that bore only the faintest resemblance to the Han prototypes. Floral elements became increasingly common, sometimes completely replacing the mountain cliffs with petals. Abstraction became the norm as more regional kilns started to produce mountain censers in addition to a range of different censer designs.
Here I provide a simple visual narrative of the mountain censer with minimal comments in the captions. If you’d like more information about these censers there is plenty of other information online and I’ll leave a few recommendations at the end.
Too often, East Asian art history books, or even world art textbooks, show one among a handful of very early, and very ornate, mountain censer specimens. (It’s typically one of the first three below.) Those designs, all made for members of the imperial family, did not last very long, and the mountain censer form underwent significant changes throughout the centuries. This is meant to be a visual primer for the long history of the mountain censer form.
Each image below is made in a 16×9 slide format; feel free to download the images for classroom use. If you’d like better resolution images feel free to email me: pmr01ATucsbDOTedu. _/|\_
*There are hundreds of mountain censer designs, I tried to select versions where I could find a good resolution photograph and information about its provenance and current ownership. I claim no ownership of the original photos and only use them here for educational purposes. Unfortunately, for many of the censers, especially the ceramic ones, I did not readily find information about their sizes so I decided to omit that information. The censers noted as part of a private collection were found on Chinese auction sites with no indication of the identity of the final bidder.
**Like deleted scenes in a movie, this is bonus dissertation material – thoughts and ideas that will never make it into my finished work, but stuff I love to talk about nevertheless.
Further Reading [English Resources]
Erickson, Susan N. 1992. “Boshanlu: Mountain Censers of the Western Han Period: A Typological and Iconological Analysis,” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 45, pp. 6-28.
Kirkova, Zornika. 2018. “Sacred Mountains, Abandoned Women, and Upright Officials: Facets of the Incense Burner in Early Medieval Chinese Poetry,” Early Medieval China, Vol. 24, pp. 53-81.
Laufer, Berthold. 1909 . Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Rawson, Jessica. 2006. “The Chinese Hill Censer, Boshan lu: A Note on Origins, Influences and Meanings,” Arts Asiatiques, Vol. 61, pp. 75-86.
Wenley, A.G. 1948/1949. “The Question of the Po-Shan-Hsiang-Lu,” Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 3, pp. 5-12.