By Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan: Ash, Published by Haunch of Venison, 2007, UK
About two years ago, I moved back to China from the United States. On my return, I visited the Longhua Temple in Shanghai to burn incense before Buddha. There I noticed many lay Buddhists who spent hours alone with the sculpture of Buddha, muttering prayers; they all seemed to have entered another state of mind, as though they were hypnotized. I was deeply moved by the power of the sculpture and the allure of such power, attracting people to burn incense and to pray. The temple floor was covered with ash which leaked from the giant incense burner. Seeing this image of ash conjured a feeling inside of me: it was a beautiful material and it moved me greatly. These ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings. It was here that I finally discovered the ingredient I had been looking for to pave the way for new work.
Incense burning is commonly practiced by Han people and other ethnically Chinese groups as a way of honoring familial ancestors, as well as worshipping idols, deities and spirits. Joss sticks may be lit at temples or at home, during festivals or special occasions and also in the course of daily rituals. What was, in antiquity, ’incense burning to the moon, to flowers and beauty’ is seen in the modern day as a romantic aesthetic.
Although incense did not originate in China, its people have a long history of using it. The practice was mentioned in two ancient Chinese classical texts, Shi Jin ( The Book of Odes) and Shang Shu ( The Book of History), and is thought to have emerged in China during the Eastern Zhou era (770-256 BC). Some believe it was introduced into state sacrifices prior to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141-87 BC). During these sacrificial rituals, offerings and silk were also burned in honour of heavenly spirits.
The earliest incense was made with unprocessed natural products such as dried grass and seeds. As it began to be imported along the Silk Road, Emperor Wu of Han permitted its use outside state rites, and incense burning became part of everyday life. Spices introduced from Turkestan to China leg to increasingly exotic types of joss sticks and burners. Affordability was another factor in popularising incense. In the period after the Sui (581-619) and Tang (619-907)dynasties, the cheaper araucaria variety replaced those from Turkestan. In addition, Buddhism as the state religion (in preference to Confucianism and Taoism) played a major role in determining how incense was traded and handled. From the ancient practice of burning it in temples derived a heightened scene of Chinese spirituality and a unique view of life.
According to this religious view, the worship of ancestors and heaven informed all manner of rituals, beliefs and behaviour, connecting the living with the deceased. Incense naturally became a mediator between the lay and religious aspects of daily rituals, while its burning brought the believer closer to ancestors and spirits, quelled their fears and engendered hope and courage. The communion that came from burning incense during prayer was important for the way in which individuals related to deities and spirits. In other words, the human mediation of otherworldly beings was channelled through the practice. Even in Chinese daily life today, blessings, prayers, fortune- telling, dealing with bad omens and funeral rites would be incomplete without the burning of incense.
The ash that is produced also holds medicinal properties in Chinese folk traditions and has long been considered an excellent healing remedy. A traditional castration technique uses incense ash both as a haemostatic agent to stop the bleeding and as a painkiller after surgery. The process begins by first binding the external genitalia to stem the blood flow to it; a sharp knife is then used to slice off the penis and testicles. Ash is sprinkled on liberally to cover the wound. A fragment of a quill feather is inserted into the urethra. If the patient is able to urinate after the feather is removed, the surgery has been successful. If not, it is likely that he will have contracted uremia and will die.
In most cases, the ash from Buddhist temples is scattered into the sea or lakes, dumped in the woods, or simply buried. When I discovered that in modern times it is processed as garbage, I felt a profound sense of regret and pity. I decided to visit Shanghai’s popular Longhua Temple, Yufou Temple, and Jingan Temple, as well as those in my local neighbourhood, in order to collect the ashes and bring them to my studio. To some, ash seems useless and insubstantial; it is a short-lived witness to human spirituality and spiritual practice. To me, it carries unseen sedimentary residue, and tremendous human data about the collective and individual subconscious.
As artists and as individuals, w e select materials as message-carriers to reconnect with the spiritual world outside of our everyday life. Incense burning touches and awakens the spiritual impulse embedded deeply in our subconscious. Therefore, the ashes produced already possess a great deal of potential for connecting the human with the spiritual. The task, for me, is to solidify these remains of the spiritual life, and allow this evidence somehow to haunt my pictorial depictions of historical events, people or earthly symbols. I select my imagery carefully and hope that, through this haunting process, it will invite a new examination of our collective awareness and experience. And finally, through this process, the subjects of my ash paintings shall receive blessings and solicitude from the human world.