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The sweet smell of traditional Chinese incense

By Li Hongrui | | Updated: 2018-07-30 11:35
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Traditional Chinese medical incense made by Shi Yali's workshop. [Photo by Li Hongrui/]

Burning incense and sipping tea from a purple clay cup while appreciating traditional Chinese music is a way for many Chinese people to enjoy their leisure time, alone or with friends.

But for this, incense is a necessity, especially the traditional Chinese medical incense, which not only creates a nice smell, but also has healing effects.

"Speaking of medical incense, we should remember that it belongs to traditional Chinese medicine," Shi Yali, an inheritor of medical incense making craft, told China Daily website at a small lecture held at her workshop in Beijing on Sunday afternoon.

It means that such incense is more like a medicine rather than a simple perfume.

Shi, who belongs to a family that has been connected with traditional Chinese medicine for more than 400 years, has passed down the art of making medical incense to her only son.

However, according to her family tradition, only women were allowed to learn the craft, while male learned traditional medicine that was considered to be superior to medical incense making.

In fact, both traditional Chinese medicine and incense are not something easy to learn.

Moreover, medical incense cost more time and energy, for each ingredient must be strictly made at a certain time. For example, if the recipe of a incense needs rain water on the day of Clear and Bright, one of the 24 Chinese solar terms, the water must be collected on that very day.

"If we cannot get the ingredient on that day, then the incense making has to be stopped," Shi said.

Thus, according to the inheritor, it takes two or three years to make incense based on methods passed down from ancient time.

"High quality Chinese medical incense is often expensive as some of its precious ingredients must be purchased abroad nowadays," the inheritor said.

When asked whether she will add her own recipe to the incense making process, she said she will strictly follow the tradition.

"The essence of this craft is tradition, now there are incenses made by machines that look better, yet the best ones are always made by hand," Shi said.

Hand-made incense often has a rough look, not as smooth as the machine-made ones.

Shi added that incense made with chemical elements may smell good, but is not healthy in the long run.

The craft of making traditional Chinese medical incense was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2009.

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