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March 24, 2014

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Fragrant herbs for traditional incense

MANY fragrant herbs are used to make traditional incense and are also used in traditional Chinese medicine. Here are a few of the essentials cited by master Fu Jingliang.

• Chen xiang (agarwood) 沉香

Reputed to be the world’s most expensive wood, it is coveted as a status symbol.

It is the resinous, fragrant heartwood produced by aquilaria trees in response to fungal or bacterial attack.

Heavy and sweet, its oil is a famous incense ingredient in China and Southeast Asia.

Agarwood is used in virtually all incense, considered the “prime minister” among ingredients. It is never used alone in China’s traditional incense culture because of its strong yang energy. Inhaling too much can upset mental balance.

It strengthens the kidneys, back, knees, and has been used to treat cirrhosis of the liver and tumors.

Once grown widely, it is rare and now grows in Hainan Island and Southeast Asia. Many fake products are on the market.

• Tan xiang (sandalwood) 檀香

From santalum tree, the wood retains fragrance for decades. It helps regulate qi (energy flow), benefits stomach, treats insomnia and skin ailments. It’s indigenous to South Asia and is mostly imported.

• Long nao xiang (literally “dragon’s head fragrance”) 龙脑香

Extracted from the resin of dipterocarpus trees, its dried resin resembles crystals and ancient Chinese compared them to dragon’s heads to indicate they were precious.

It grows in Southeast Asia and southern China, and can treat headache (by inhalation), eases pain, resuscitates.

• She xiang (musk) 麝香

The gland secretions from musk deer, an endangered species, it is used to treat a range of ailments.

It also prevents disease and improve the central nervous system, breathing, pulse and blood pressure.

It has been used to treat chest pain.

Fu Jingliang says that to protect musk deer, he does not use she xiang to make incense.

He uses a special kind of wood with a similar fragrance and functions.

• Ru xiang (frankincense) 乳香

Literally “milky fragrance” in Chinese, it’s the aromatic resin of Boswellia trees, mostly grown in Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudia Arabia.

One of the oldest and most important medicines in the Western world, it’s used to treat heat, inflammation and kidney disease.

• Anxi xiang (benzoin) 安息香

Anxi is the name for the region around today’s Iran; it also means “put to rest.”

The aromatic resin from styrax benzoin tree, it’s imported to China around the 4th century and used to ward off disease and pathogens.

It can be burned together with other herbs to treat stroke, coma and pains in heart, belly and back.


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