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        These burners were originally made out of "dead" materials, such as bronze, terra-cotta, or porcelain (sometimes with gold inlay), and only later created out of natural rocks.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. 
  Fairy mountain incense burner (Boshan xianglu), excavated in 1968.  Bronze inlaid with gold.  From the tomb of Liu Sheng (d. 113 B.C.E.., brother of Western Han emperor Wu) at Mancheng, Hebei.  26 cm H;  3.4 kg.  Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang.

"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].)

Glazed earthenware,
22.2 cm H, Western Han (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.)
(Source: Young, Martie W.  Early Chinese Ceramics From New York State Museums (NY: China Institute in America; 1991), Fig. 11, pp. 43, 42) 
Red pottery under a glaze, 
21 cm H, Han
(Source: Important Chinese Works of Art: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Bull (NY: Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc.; 1983), Color Plate 113)
Red earthenware with an iridescent green glaze, 
23 cm H; 21 cm D saucer; Early to Mid Eastern Han
(Source: Spirit of Han, Fig. 117, pp. 128-129)
Han pottery (left) and gilded bronze (right) boshanlu.
(Source: Han, Prof. Pao-Teh  External Forms and Internal Visions -- The Story of Chinese Landscape Design (Taipei: Youth Cultural Enterprise Co., Ltd; 1992; trans. by Carl Shen), pg. 31)
Earthenware with relief decoration, remains of pigment.  22.2 cm H.
Eastern Han, 25-220 C.E.
(Source: Valenstein, Suzanne G.  A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics (NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1975, 1989), B&w Fig. 39 and pg. 39.)

       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.

Lead glazed earthenware hill-jar, original bright green glaze reduced to silvery iridescence by degradation during burial.
(Source: Hutt, Julia   Understanding Far Eastern Art (NY: E.P. Dutton; 1987), pg. 78.  This book is actually a very good overview of those arts.)
Green-glazed earthenware hill-jar
28 cm H; 21.5 cm D
Late Eastern Han
(Source: Spirit of Han, Fig. 89, pg. 114)
Red earthenware hill-jar with amber glaze
26 cm H; 22 cm D
Eastern Han
(Source: Spirit of Han, Fig. 90, pg. 114)
Red earthenware hill-jar with a bluish-green glaze
24 cm H; 19.5 cm D
Eastern Han
(Source: Spirit of Han, Fig. 91, pg. 115)

         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
        cf. per The Chinese Exhibition, The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China (Kansas City, MO: Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum; 1975), b&w photo pg. 363, an openwork censer of three-colored glazed pottery dates from the end of the thirteenth century C.E.  Same figure as Stein, Fig. 22?; Spirit of Han (Singapore: The Southeast Asian Ceramic Society and Sun Tree Publishing Limited; 1991), pp. 38-39, 42-44; Keswick, Maggie (Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; 1978), pp. 38, 40; first Hebei bronze perfume burner (Sheng tomb) shown in Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye  (A Journey Through Ancient China; New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 128 -- also shown in b&w in Sullivan, Michael  (The Arts of China; Berkeley: University of California Press; 1984), pg. 73, Stein, pg. 47, Spirit of Han, pg. 43 (good detail in b&w), and Keswick, pg. 40, which gives current location as National Palace Museum, Taiwan --  also pg. 119; second Hebei piece shown in Stein, pg. 46 (b&w) and The Chinese Exhibition, color and b&w plates 146; a green-glazed "hill-jar" from the Han dynasty, about 22.4 cm H (8-13/16") , is shown in Koyama, Fujio and John Figgess  (Two Thousand Years of Oriental Ceramics; New York: Harry N. Adams, Inc.; 1960), caption on pg. 34 and b&w Fig. 12 on pg. 35, while another specimen known from a Chinese colony in Korea is shown as b&w Fig. 131 on pg. 315, with caption on pg. 314; Yanagisawa, Soen (Tray Landscapes (Bonkei and Bonseki), Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau; 1955), pp. 2, 77; Behme, Robert (Bonsai, Saikei and Bonkei, New York: William Moorow and Company, Inc.; 1969), pg. 15; Cahill, James (Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School; New York: Asia House Gallery; 1972), pg. 89.