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Agarwood Teaches me to Slow Down | China Youth Portrait ⑥

By YU, MULINICHONGQING|Nov 23,2022

Editor’s notes: In ancient China, time could be measured by burning incense, so in romantic speaking, time has a scent. Nowadays, the tradition of “measuring time by incense” is no longer common, but in Chongqing’s Jiulongpo Agarwood Museum, a group of people spends time with incense. Yang Xiaoyu is one of them. Last year, she was selected as an inheritor of Chinese traditional incense-making skills.

Inheritor Yang Xiaoyu makes agarwood tea. (iChongqing / Yu Mulin)

“The museum is not just a working place for me, but also a school. Chinese incense culture has a long history, accompanying the Chinese nation through the ups and downs of four thousand years. Agarwood is one of the four most famous incense in ancient China. To learn about agarwood is not only a way to explore the lifestyle of the ancient Chinese, but also a key to open the door of the sedimentary accretion of Chinese culture over thousands of years.”

Inheritor Yang Xiaoyu smells the burning agarwood incense stick. (iChongqing / Yu Mulin)

“Learning scents was the first hurdle for me as a practitioner of the agarwood museum. In the beginning, I felt that all agarwood smelled the same, and I could not distinguish the difference, let alone enjoy the emotional reactions of different agarwood. I even doubted myself: maybe this was not the right job for me. After all, it takes talent. Some people are naturally better at that, while I am not. I take in all the agarwood in the museum to train my olfactory sensation. When my senses and brain were both exhausted, I would go out to take some fresh air for a minute and back to practice again. In addition, I have created a clean environment for my nose and avoid artificial scents in my daily life, such as perfume, overly odorous skin care products, places like shopping malls, etc. Over time, I found that I could smell the difference, and my sense of smell became more sensitive. Having a deeper appreciation of the scent, I can get my hands on making incense.”

Inheritor Yang Xiaoyu leads a tour of agarwood at the Jiulongpo Agarwood Museum. (iChongqing / Yu Mulin)

“Making incense is a technique, but also an art. It is an art because it requires constant practice, mastering, and recreating incense recipes from ancient books. Not only that, but it is also because there are specific differences between ancient and modern society in the aesthetics of incense. How to adjust the old incense recipes so that people nowadays can also enjoy them? It takes time to figure out. Whenever I make a new incense, I will ask my friends and museum visitors to test it. Only with their fondness can this incense be considered reasonable. Good incense can make you feel physically and mentally good.”

Inheritor Yang Xiaoyu lights the agarwood incense stick. (iChongqing / Yu Mulin)

“Agarwood is formed when the Acquilara Tree gets infected with a type of mold and secrets a resin to combat the mold. As the infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin, called aloes, and then ages for a long period before agarwood can be finally formed.”

“The infected trees have undergone long years to grow the fragrance. Such a time-consuming process is contrary to this fast-paced society. After spending so much time with agarwood, my life has also slowed down. Whenever I feel bored, anxious, or unhappy, incense will calm me down immediately. I do not go to the mall or spend much time on social media. My favorite thing in my leisure time is burning incense and sipping tea with my friends.”

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