The proper chinese term for joss stick is called "Xiang 香". It is basically a slender stick of incense burned before a joss by the Chinese. Actually, the joss stick (incense) is not just used by chinese, but also by Indians in religion such as Hinduism. Burning joss stick is known in chinese as "Shao Xiang 烧香"
The joss stick is burnt by practitioner in Taoism, Buddhism or chinese folks religion (such as Ancestry worship) as a form of rites and for prayer (as a form of communication to the heaven or the non-human world).
The joss stick is basically made up of incense, a material composed of aromatic plant matter, often with the addition of essential oils extracted from plant or animal sources, intended to release fragrant smoke for religious, therapeutic, or aesthetic purposes as it smolders.
There are two types of joss stick:
1. Cored stick: This form of stick incense has a supporting center core of bamboo. Higher quality varieties of this incense form have fragrant sandalwood cores. The core is coated by a thick layer of incense material that burns away with the core. This type of incense is commonly produced by the Indians and the Chinese.
2. Solid stick: This stick incense has no supporting core and is completely made of incense material. Easily broken into pieces, it allows one to determine the specific amount of incense they wish to burn. This is the most commonly produced form of incense in Japan.
Below are some pictures of Joss sticks that you can find in chihnese Buddhist or Taoist templesOrigin and History of Joss Sticks in China
The history in the use of joss sticks in China can largely be divided into 3 periods. The 1st period is before Han Wudi's reign (before 140 BC), the 2nd period is from Han Wudi till 3 kingdoms period (140 BC - 260 AD) while the 3rd period is from Sui/Tang period onwards.1st Period - Before Han Wudi period
Basically, burning joss stick is solely used for religious offerings, worship and sacrifice. The profession of burning incense was controlled by the government and was carried out by a priest. The Zhou people uses the rising smoke as a form of heaven worship. It's known as "Yin 禋" or "Yin Si 禋祀". In the book of Odes 《诗·周颂·维清》, it was mentioned “维清缉熙，文王之典，肇禋。”笺：“文王受命始祭天。” . This implies that this form of worship originated from King Wen of Zhou Dynasty (周文王).
The reason of the term "Xiang 香" (literally means 'aroma') used for joss stick/incense is due to its aromatic smell. Durin this period, the incense has not been processed and is natural. It's strictly speaking not yet a conventional "aromatic incense". Secondly, it is naturally burnt and doesn't require any form of containers such as "Xiang lu 香炉" . Thirdly, it's specifically used for religious ceremony. The religious ceremony was still controlled by the country, thus during this period, burning incense is still not so popular among the public. 2nd Period - from Han Wudi till 3 kingdoms
During Han Wudi's period, in order to search for immortality, there was a practice of worshipping any god. This broke the tradition of "using joss stick to pray to heaven only".During this time, the joss sticks and incense became more pratical, for instance it has been used by concubines and aristocracy.
During this time, incense from the western region was also imported into China. Because of the possibility of obtaining the real aromatic mateirial, during han Wudi's time, the business of incense became to boom. By that time, China's first Joss-stick stand/container (香炉) was invented, known as "Bo Shan Lu 博山炉".
However, from the time of importing incense till 3 kingdom period, incense was largely limited only to the aristocracy and was considered luxurious items. Most common people do not owned them.3rd period - from Sui/Tang dynasty
From Sui/Tang dynasty onwards, joss stick became to be common among the people. Why it was popular had two main reasons:
The first reason was that the 'incense from western region" was replaced by 'incense from South and hainan".
The second reason was that Buddhism had greate developments from age of fragmentation onwards... to the point of even becoming a state religion, thus making joss sticks a popular item.
By Song period, 3 religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism became to combine together and burning joss stick became a common practice. When one worship Confucius, one also burn joss stick.
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