| The boshanlu [po-shan-lu]
or boshan ("magic mountains" or "vast mountain braziers") have been
created since the Qin dynasty and the beginning of the Han (c. 200 B.C.E.).
They are considered a typical innovation of this period. These were
incense burners in the form of mountain peaks rising over waves, symbolizing
the abode of the Immortals.
The allusions to an island-mountain in the sea refer to the Three Isles of the Blessed: Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. The legendary Chinese Immortals (hermits of perennial youth) were thought to live partly in the Western Mountains and partly on movable islands in the Eastern Sea off the coast of Shandong. Like the Immortals themselves, these islands dissolved into mist as human travellers approached. Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di is known to have sent an expedition of aristocratic boys and girls to find them. The group never returned.
And tradition says that the Queen Mother of the West (associated with Mt. Kun-lun [K'un-lun], the axis of the world) gave Emperor Qin a boshanlu, a particularly appropriate gift since it depicted exactly [sic] one of the Isles of the Blessed, floating on the sea. Mt. Kun-lun was the western counterpart of the eastern foam-washed Penglai.
These burners were originally made out of "dead" materials, such as bronze, terra-cotta, or porcelain (sometimes with gold inlay), and only later created out of natural rocks. Sometimes the latter even had living plants added to them. In the rooms of scholars, these objects were essential. The boshanlu generally consisted of a bowl, which contained perfumed water representing the sea, and a high cover, sometimes with three levels or even nine, representing a mountain. The Daoist utopia as presented in these objects was not a gentle idyllic landscape, but one with formidably undulating slopes where an incongruous assortment of tigers, hydras, mountain goats, deer, birds, monkeys, and men are engaged in a never-ending chase or hunting scene. It has been suggested that this relentless zoomorphic pursuit was intended to be a visual metaphor for the perpetual force which motivates the cosmos. Sea monsters represented the ocean; tigers, the mountain. Climbing men who may be Immortals or virile elders appear occasionally.
When the incense was lit, curls of smoke seeped out among the tiny crags and lid perforations like scented mist. Shrinking himself in the mind's eye, a scholar could then imagine that he was among those mysterious islands.
One bronze perfume burner (see above figure) is inlaid with gold and decorated with a landscape that transports one in imagination to mountains and valleys where bewitching beauty and miniature plants and animals inspired poets and conjured up halcyon days. Its carved base holds up the sacred mountains whose bases are lapped by the waves of the Eastern Sea. In another boshanlu (32.4 cm H) from Hebei, a mountain supported on the right hand of a human figure who is sitting sideways on a kneeling/prone beast. Some boshanlu have no perforations, however, and may have been used to hold fragrant herbs placed in the tray below. Later incense burners exhibit many of the same features.
"Waves of the Eastern Sea lap its base, while a hole behind each little peak emits the incense smoke symbolizing the auspicious cloud vapor exhaled by the fairy mountain -- and, indeed, by all mountains, for according to traditional Chinese belief, all nature is alive and 'breathing.'"
Exceptional in design and workmanship and is extremely well-preserved, with no signs of incrustation, repair, or damage. The inside of the pierced top shows signs of browning by smoke, and was not merely a mortuary item.
(Sources: Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China (Berkeley: University of California Press; 1967, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1999. Fourth Edition, Expanded and Revised), pg. 82, Fig. 5.30 [Red background]; The Great Bronze Age of China, edited by Wen Fong (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1980), Color Plate, 95, pp. 330-331 [Different angle, Blue background].)
The simultaneous appearance of
these boshanlu and of the legends concerning the Three Isles was
probably no coincidence. The invention must derive from the wish
to portray the islands. Furthermore, the Three Isles were also represented
in the cylindrical lian ("hill-jars") with conical-tops shaped like
mountains, which served as mortuary objects. Burying hill-censers
and hill-jars in the grave had also a symbolical significance which implied
the mourner's wish that his beloved deceased might reach the land of bliss
and attain immortality of the Fortunate Islands.
Thus, the idea of portraying a complete natural site in miniature form goes back to at least the Han, when it was associated with religious, mystical, and folkloric concepts belonging particularly to Daoism, but also occurring in other settings. The boshanlu, at a later date worked in natural stones and sometimes with living plants added, constituted an important link between the earliest representations of magical miniature landscapes and the dwarf potted plants attested from Tang times on (c. 700 C.E.).
Stein, Rolf A. (The World
in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious
Thought; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 42, which
states that specimens existed among the antiquities collected during the
Tang and Song, but the boshanlu were no longer said to be made by
that time., also pg. 43, note 159 on pg. 300, and note 88 on pg. 285 which
mentions a jade boshanlu;