The term "heavenly scent" comes from Ding Wei's (966-1037) Record of Heavenly Scent written during the Northern Song dynasty, the earliest text in China specifically dealing with incense. Beginning in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), agarwood incense became regarded as the highest grade of incense. This source of incense is made by first creating a gash in an aquilaria tree. Then, following insect infestation and/or mold infection, the tree produces a resin in response. The resin, known as "aloes" (or "agar"), accumulates after a period of time to form resin-embedded wood. The tree is found mainly in the tropical areas of the Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, Hainan Island, Vietnam, and other regions in Southeast Asia. Due to different ways of cultivating resin-embedded wood, it can yield "honey agarwood" or "cream agarwood," which have a distinctively strong and refreshing scent. For many centuries, agarwood incense has been prized and used in daily life, religious activities, and even medicine. In addition to making incense, unique forms of appreciating and wearing the wood have evolved over the centuries, making it a luxury item among the wealthy and nobility as well as an important part of incense culture by imbuing a scholarly atmosphere. As the title of this exhibition suggests, not only does it offer audiences an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of craftsmanship related to incense objects, but also to explore the unforgettable scent of this material likened to heavenly fragrance.
This exhibition is divided into two parts, the first of which is entitled "The Way of Incense." From the agarwood found in the collection of the National Palace Museum, we see how this kind of rare and precious wood was treasured, worn, and used in the past. Hence, this part is further subdivided into three sections, which are "Collecting and Display," "Adorning the Body," and "Utensils for Appreciation." They show how people at the court used this kind of fragrant wood (which were considered to be more valuable than gold) to enhance their aesthetics of life. The second part of the exhibition is "The Taste for Incense," which displays the Qing dynasty incense wares and materials. This part is further subdivided into two sections, which are "The Art of Incense Utensils" and "Space for Appreciating Incense," highlighting the elegant creations defining the way that people in the past used incense and, at the same time, conveyed aesthetics unique to their lifestyles.
Nowadays, as agarwood becomes rare, this exhibition shows how the court used this highest grade of incense wood to produce luxury items. Integrated with local contemporary works, we see how the aesthetic of life was (and still is) distilled into utensils for incense.
Related network resources: Scents to the Heavens: A Special Exhibition on Agarwood & the Culture of Incense