Important Collection of Chinese Incense Clocks
Chinese, 19th century. A Collection of nine incense clocks with extensive provenance and exhibition history.
Each of the examples offered here are illustrated in the comprehensive study The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with incense in East Asia, Sylvio Bedini, Cambridge University Press, 1994. This is the definitive study on Chinese incense timepieces. In addition, they were exhibited in the major show, "A Sense of Time" at the National Clock and Watch Museum, from 2009-2010.
The late Sylvio Bedini was the primary source for scholarship related to incense timekeeping. He was closely involved with the Collection offered in this sale.
The timepieces offered include the following:
1.) Urn shaped incense clock, of pewter and brass; ht. 12 cm. Symbols of wealth and longevity, and with Chung Shie hallmarks, six pieces and complete. Bedini Fg. 62.
2.) Octagon shaped incense clock, paktong; ht. 9 cm. Yin and Yang symbol, and 8 trigrams from the Book of Changes, lacking hallmarks. 5 pieces, missing spoon. Bedini Fgs. 64 and 65.
3.) Scepter form incense clock, paktong/copper; lg. 30 cm. Cover engraved with flowers, fish, bats and swastika, auspicious templates. Containing 5 total pieces, missing spoon. Bedini fg. 58
4.) Jui Scepter form incense clock, paktong/copper material; lg. 24 cm. "Moon Lake" inscription, cover with Ting Yun design. Containing 5 pieces, missing spoon. Bedini Fgs. 80 and 81.
5.) Melon shaped incense clock, paktong/copper material; lg. 10 cm. Cover translates to "the melon vine is long and spreading". Containing 6 pieces and complete. Bedini Fg. 96.
6.) Lute shaped incense clock, paktong/copper material; lg. 14 cm. Cover with butterfly, symbols of success and long life. Containing 5 pcs., missing tamper. Bedini Fg. 57.
7.) Square shaped incense clock, cover with symbols of wealth and longevity, paktong material; ht. 11 cm. Hallmarked Shin Thuan Mau. 6 total pcs., missing spoon. Bedini Fg. 60.
8.) Rectangular incense clock, paktong/copper material; ht. 9 cm. Cover with broken ice and prunus design. 5 total pcs., missing spoon and tamper. Archaic engraved symbols along sides. Bedini Fg. 61.
9.) Thai swan boat alarm, in bronze and with brass bells, also with 4 alarm drops in steel; lg. 56 cm. Bedini Fg. 20, referred to by author as dragon boat timepiece.
Incense seals are an East Asian phenomenon. They owe their development to several things, beginning with the ancient need for Chinese officials to find more accurate ways to measure the passage of time than the current water clocks, sand clocks, and sundials. Although a very small percentage of the population required this, astronomers, palace officials, temples, night watchmen and others were dependent upon the relatively accurate burning incense measurement of passing time, especially as it could be used after dark and also be portable.
The incense seal works by a steady and controlled burning of a line of specially formulated ground incense. The nearest similar items would be a fuse cord, and these were also used in China, especially for alerting court messengers to arise in the small hours of night. By careful design of the incense "trail" as well as the incense mixture and vessel, passing hours could be measured well within the acceptable standards of time.
Most incense timepieces available today date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the timpieces were indeed used as early as the 1690s, the popularity of the works can be attributed to Ting Yun (1800-1879), a Chinese professor who created a revived interest in its use. Ting Yun created a book of woodcuts with one hundred designs of incense timepieces. As a result, many contain covers attributing them to "Moon Lake", Ting Yun's "courtesy" name.
Metal incense seals are usually made of paktong and these are believed to have been made near or in present day Shanghai. Others are of pewter, possibly made near Canton.
A rare and important collection containing well documented examples of incense timekeeping.