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A fine and rare bronze incense burner (boshanlu)

A fine and rare bronze incense burner (boshanlu)


Han dynasty
Height: 8 1/8 in, 20.6 cm

The cup-shaped censer has a tall, conical cover and is supported on the raised right arm of a kneeling storyteller. The solid figure wears a tall, pointed hat, and his face is full with small eyes, a large nose and open mouth with his tongue stuck out.
His left hand rests on his knee, and his torso is bare. The censer is cast with a frieze of three pairs of highly stylised, entwined, long-beaked birds, above a band of pendent blades. The cover is pierced, for the release of the incense smoke, with a band of towering mountain peaks, with incised details, and surmounted by a seated monkey. The bronze is now a deep olive-green colour with extensive encrustation.

The mountain range may represent Mount Penglai, the home of the Daoist Immortals, or possibly Mount Hua or Kunlun.

It is quite rare to find boshanlu supported by human figures, but for the famous example unearthed in 1968 from the tomb of Dou Wan, consort of Liu Sheng (d. 113 BC), at Mancheng, Hebei province, and now in the collection of the Hebei Provincial Museum, see Rawson, Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties, no. 82, pp. 172–3.

The subject of boshanlu is discussed in detail in Munakata, Sacred Mountains in Chinese Art, nos. 17–26, pp. 72–81, and note in particular no. 17, p. 72, for a closely related censer with a similar figure in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. For an interesting essay on this Nelson-Atkins boshanlu, see Fontein and Wu, Unearthing China’s Past, no. 45, pp. 103–07.

Similar figures of storytellers were also found in the tomb of Liu Sheng, and are illustrated in Rawson, op cit, no. 83, pp. 173–4.