Making sense of Chinese censers

Rowleys Ely (8)

A valuable Ming censer in the form of a lion dog with a hinged head ca. 1620s  Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

Chinese censers crop up on the market all the time: with dealers, auction houses and on exhibition. But what is a censer and why are some so much more valuable than others?

A censer is simply a bowl made to hold burning incense. It may be crafted from a wide range of available materials. The most popular forms are bronze, stone, porcelain, cloisonne, copper and, even, jade.

We think that the first vessels specifically designed to burn incense appeared during the Western Han dynasty (206BC – 8AD). These first vessels were often based upo traditional three-legged bronze ding or ceramic dou ware. Typically, they stand on a tripod base with two loop handles. These designs were often copied much later but many styles and shapes have been used historically, ranging from such simple bronze bowls to elaborate and highly decorated cloisonne vessels in the form of elephants or fantastic, mythical animals.

Mythical animals were very much favoured. During the early 1th century, during the Ming dynasty, censers were made in form of luduan or Buddhistic lion dogs, either with detachable heads or, less commonly, with hinged heads. The incense would be placed within the body of the beast and then set light. Smoke would then issue from the open, menacing mouth of the best.


An early 17th century bronze censer in the form of a luduan (Chinese unicorn) which was sold at TEFAF 2016 for a figure in the region of euros 20,000. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

More ordinary small censers might be used as hand warmers in winter, slightly larger ones for perfuming clothes or bed linen. However, most cencers would be used to burn incense at private (domestic) shrines as well as being a form of everyday fumigation at a time when unpleasant smells were, let us say, rather more pervasive.



An attractive very small cloisonne censer, probably used as a handwarmer or dressing table decorative item. Courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

What determines the value of a censer? Many of the simple but heavy bronze bowls, typically on tripod bases, bear Xuande marks. Such original pieces usually command high prices: later copies are not regarded as so valuable. Design is obviously a factor. Elaborate designs involving a high quality of craftsmanship will inevitably increase value. Rarity, of course, as with any article, also plays its part in determining value. Amongst the most sought after is the so-called ‘incense sphere’ consisting of a latticed metal orb that hung on a chain and opened in half along a centre hinge. The sphere surrounded a small cup that was suitably weighted to ensure the incense would not spill as it was carried.

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (128)  A very rare Ming incense burner, blue and white porcelain in the collection of Belton House, Lincs.  Photo by Paul Harris

The incense itself was created using dried aromatic plants and essential oils and there were particular skills and special equipment involved in successfully burning incense. There was a large market for incense: by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) incense sulture was common to all classes in China. Alongside flower arranging, tea-whisking and painting, incense burning was regarded as one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar.

cloisonne vase mctears A gold-splashed incense tool vase used to store utensils used in the process of burning incense. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

Of course, not all censers are particulalry valuable and it is possible to pick one up at auction or via a dealer for just a few hundred pounds. 19th century examples like the fairly large censer illustrated below are usually available on the market.


A late 19th or early 20th century bronze censer with detachable head and crafted in the form of a fantastic animal. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland