Guan Incense: a DG specialty

A product worth three times more than gold, Guan incense is a fine local specialty that faded over time. Find out the history and where to go for a ceremonial experience.

You’ve probably never heard of this extinct Dongguan local specialty, but you’ve certainly visited Hong Kong, right? The once barren fishing island was a hub to ship out Guan Incense to South East Asia and the Middle East 700 years ago. It’s widely believed that Hong Kong, literally meaning “fragrant port,” acquired its name from it.

As one variety of agarwood, a source of fragrant wood, Guan Incense is considered the top grade and finest of all incense products and the only one named after a city’s name. Relying on its unique aroma, it became a luxury and was only accessible by the noble and imperial class. It had been a tribute to the imperial family for hundreds of years. People believe it can calm down the mind, purify the body and spirit, and sharpen the senses.

Craving for the sandy and stony earth in Dongguan’s nowadays Dalingshan and Liaobu Town areas, Guan Incense has been largely planted in the last 1,000 years, and previously formed a thriving industry around Ming and Qing Dynasty (1368-1911). The Liaobu incense market was one of the four most famous ancient markets in Guangdong. On the first, fourth, and seventh date of every month, it attracted merchants, dealers, and collectors from around the province.

During the Cultural Revolution, as a symbol of old lavish life, the whole industry was ruthlessly disrupted and destroyed. If any of these trees had ever survived from this man-made disaster, they were certainly uprooted by urban development. Since the 1980s, factories, commercial buildings and apartments were erected on every inch of the territory. Although the government has acted and planted thousands of Guan Incense trees in recent decades, the capacity of the historic product is still extremely scarce. The price of the end product, Guan Incense powder for example, is three times more than gold.

As one variety of agarwood, a source of fragrant wood, Guan Incense is considered the top grade and finest of all incense products and the only one named after a city’s name.

The long and slow forming process of Guan Incense is one of the reasons why it’s so expensive. When an agarwood tree is physically impaired, either by worms or strong wind, it will release a special oil to heal its wound. After years of deposition, the oil forms a solid crystal which becomes surprisingly aromatic. On a Guan Incense farm, trees are deliberately cut and chopped to make incisions to form the crystal—it’s sort of “tree abuse” if you ask me. It usually takes at least seven to eight years for the tree to grow enough before the first cut. And apparently, the older the tree, the better quality the incense can become.

How to appreciate incense burning?
Because it’s so valuable, you must carry out a ceremony to burn it, known as “Xiangdao” (way of incense). Similar to a tea ceremony, special tools like spoons, brushes, and burners are made for the ceremony.

  • First, the old ash powder inside a burner is smoothed to a flat surface, to be used for the base.
  • Secondly, a mold is gently placed on top of the ashes, and incense powder is spooned on top. Incense is carefully pushed in to fill the mold.
  • Thirdly, gently and steadily the mold is lifted as not to disturb the powder. This is the most delicate step.
  • Finally, the flame spreads out across the pattern as the smoke curls up gracefully and soothing fragrance rises. The sweetness and mellowness fill your nose and spread throughout your body.

Where to watch this?
Shangzhengtang Agarwood Museum: Located inside 33 Town Creative Park, opposite of Dynacity Shopping Mall, the museum is not finalized yet but you won’t miss its ancient-style storefront and a bright-red traditional archway. Founded by Guangdong Shangzhengtang Group, a company claims to specialize in Guan Incense culture, preservation and development, the store showcases various products from their farm in Dalingshan. You can walk into the store and make a reservation for an incense burning demonstration. Since they don’t speak English, it’s wise to bring a Chinese friend. The show is free of charge but be aware that they will try to persuade you to buy their products.