Zitan incense tool vase

Zitan incense tool vase

China, Qing dynasty, 18th century

Height: 4 3/4 inches, 12 cm

Width: 1 3/4 inches, 4.5 cm

A small zitan incense tool vase of quadrilobed form. The long, slender neck extends smoothly from the four-faceted body and has indented edges. The flat base is slightly concave inwards. The wood is well polished and has the purplish hue typical of zitan, with characteristic minute silvery streaks.


This small vase was used for incense tools — one of the ‘Three Friends of Incense’, the incense tool vase, incense burner and incense powder box. The incense tool vase in various forms and materials appears frequently in genre paintings, although it is often difficult to determine the material concerned from paintings. Apart from holding chopsticks and other tools for the incense practice, an alternative use is a container for the peacock feather tassel on a court official’s hat when not in use. [1] A comparable small zitan incense tool vase of a five-petalled cross-section form, dated to the Ming dynasty, was included in the 1986 exhibition Arts from the Scholar’s Studio. [2]

  1. This is a suggestion put forward by Robert H. Ellsworth based upon what he was told by a lady who had lived for many years at the Court and remembers seeing them so used, which does not necessarily, of course, exclude the possibility of them having been originally designed for incense tools. See Ribeiro, S. ed. Arts from the Scholar’s Studio, Oriental Ceramic Society, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 242
  2. Ribeiro, S. ed. op. cit. no. 234, pp. 242-3