For this introduction, let us extract the following paragraphs from the Message of the Founder Chairman of the Institute: Professor Paul Kan who wrote in his Forward of the above agarwood exhibition:
Educating our younger generation about our culture of aloes,
which is also known as aloes wood or agarwood, is our goal
“Hong Kong” is known as “Fragrant Harbour”, and Hong Kong historically appreciate the beauty of agarwood.
It is also our goal to support the conservation of our environment, the work of CITES and those involved in policing the agreement , in Hong Kon it is the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation. Recently, it was reported that many agarwood t rees had been illegally hewed. The truth is: the timber of the tree is not worth much until it gets rotten. It is the resin from the rotten wood – hence the agarwood – that bears noble value. Those who have been cutting the trees illegally are therefore wasting their time for something that is harmful to the environment and yet not worthy of their efforts.
It has been a long-standing tradition for almost all faiths to use incense as offerings. It is also an ancient pastime for friends to have tea and play music together, and enjoy the aroma of quality fragrances. Among the fragrances they used, agarwood was the most sought-after.
While other wood floats in water
Agarwood is the only wood that sinks
“Le Sillage de la Reine”
I hope to spread the message of “Gratitude, Sharing and Permanency”. It is with these three messages that I stage this exhibition to examine the beauty of this timeless treasure with you. We can all enjoy this aromatic peace and harmony with the same gratitude, sharing and permanency.
Different grades and quality of aloe are on display, including the world-famous Kinam, which is also known as “the diamond of plants”. We are going to cover how aloe has been glorified as religious items in the Western world, China, Middle East, India, Japan and other parts of Asia. Among the hundreds of exhibits, you will be pleasantly surprised by the aloe artifacts including the Statues of Buddha, furniture, utensils, decorations and art pieces. You may also find fragrances including frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood and cinnamon. The pure fragrance oils were initially items for royalties only and later became available to all in terms of price through the birth of perfume in Europe by adding alcoholic solvents. The French royal family loved aromatics. Legend has it that when Louis XVI was escaping with his queen, Marie-Antoinette, the queen continued to wear her favourite perfume, Le Sillage de la Reine, which had a strong fragrance. They were thus identified, arrested, and then executed.
Through their history, characteristics, usage and significance in different faiths, and by observing the tools used in the enjoyment of these fragrances, we can get a glimpse of the culture and wisdom of our ancestors. Agarwood is an icon for “incense”. It was widely used in the four ancient civilizations – India, Ancient Egypt, Babylon and China. As time goes by, regardless of the differences in faith, territory and culture, and the emergence of artificial incense, the status of agarwood as “the king of incense” has never been shaken. Its value is permanent.
The myth of being perpetually popular
The reason of agarwood being perpetually popular is indeed a mystery to be solved. The reason why agarwood is being chosen as the theme of this exhibition lies within its special characteristics. While other wood floats in water, agarwood is the only wood that sinks – which symbolizes how we should master our lifetime lessons. A young agarwood has very limited fragrance or no fragrance at all. When a piece of agarwood goes under fire, its fragrance takes wing and radiates. It is very similar to someone who is going through the slow processes of lifetime learning and therefore yet remains unnoticed, even though the potential is slowly being realized. It takes hundreds of years for agarwood to sublime, which is parallel to the time, effort and patience we have to take to complete our lessons. The taller an agarwood tree is, the deeper its roots are. Each piece of agarwood has its own fragrance and shape, which differs from one another – a metaphor that we all have our lessons to learn; the lessons themselves as well as the results achieved are different. When the tree completely rots, it turns into the priceless incense, and when we complete our lessons, our physical body decays but the spirit sublimes. The agarwood trees can live without being treated with insecticides even if attacked as such, which is also a manifestation of the compassion and wisdom of Buddha. The incense that spreads to every part of the world is a manifestation of the coverage of Buddha's compassion for the world. Let's complete our lessons in the same manner as the agarwood trees have completed theirs.
Agarwood and Hong Kong
The relationship between agarwood and the history of Hong Kong is intertwined. In the early days, Aquilaria sinensis trees were planted in Hong Kong and incense traders would make them into incense and exported them to various provinces in China, Asia, even as far as Arabia. Hong Kong was actually an important port for incense trading. “Hong” means “incense” or “fragrant ” and “Kong” is “harbour”; thus Hong Kong literally means “Incense or Fragrant Harbour” in Chinese. It is with its production and trading of agarwood that Hong Kong has played an important role in global cultural interactions.
Agarwood and the world
Incense has always been an important medium in the promotion of cultural development. Arab merchants were searching for expensive agarwood when they came across pepper and cinnamon, which inspired them to the discovery of a whole series of cheaper herbs. Driven by the demand for prestigious incense, merchants made a lot of effort in developing inter-territorial trade, which led to the development of inter-territorial roads. Explorers started to discover new continents and new lands through “The Incense Trail”, and “The Spice Route” were just as important as “The SilkRoad ” in promoting trade, communication, technological and cultural exchanges in the East and the West. Incense w a s used to produce perfumes, while spices were used in cooking. China exchanged incense and spices with silk. Incense, spices and silk had undoubtedly played a significant role in promoting global cultural development.
Incense has always been an important medium
in the promotion of cultural development
Agarwood and the Garden of Eden
In Balaam's descriptions of the Israelites in Numbers (documents of the first census among the Israelites ) , the fourth book i n the Hebrew Bible and the Five Books of Mosses, he mentioned that they were “as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted”, suggesting that the origins of agarwood trees can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. (Numbers 24:6)
The Old Testament records descriptions of agarwood trees in the Garden of Eden as such:
Numbers 24:6 “As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.”
Song of Soloman 4:14 The bridegroom sings: “Your thighs shelter a paradise of…Spikenard and saffron, fragrant calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes, and every other lovely spice.”
Talking about the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve brought something with them when they were being cast out. Chapter two of Genesis records: “And out o f the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” God commanded: “Of every t ree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Unfortunately, Adam and Eve were tempted by the Devil who appeared in the form of a serpent and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were thus expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. Af ter Adam and Eve re a l i zed that they were naked, feeling ashamed, they took the leaves from the tree to cover their bodies - yes, and there, they brought the leaves of the tree from the Garden of Eden and left them to us as an invaluable gift - aloes tree thus lives on and becomes an invaluable gift from our ancestors. It was presumed that since aloes (agarwood) is from the Garden of Eden, it does not float in water but sinks. On top of that, agarwood trees are usually the tallest in forests.
Agarwood in history
According to ancient Egyptian history, agarwood was a precious ingredient used in the making of mummies. Jesus used aloes oil in performing miracles and Jesus' resurrection also involved the use of aloes oil. (John 19:39: “And there came also Nicodemus, which at first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.”) Jesus' body was covered in a generous amount of aloes oil. The resurrection of Jesus had added to the mystery of medicinal applications embodied by agarwood.
In India, during the time of Buddha, Sakyamuni was invited by various emperors and elders to promote Buddha's teachings in various countries in ancient India. Wherever he went, emperors and civilians devoted all their wealth to put up solemn decorations in places and monasteries that he was to stop by, and were enthusiastic in making offerings and donations. Rites to receive Bodhisattvas involved offering flowers and burning herbal incense, with one magical incense recipe, known as “Al l Beta” in Sanskr it, which is a mixture of precious natural medical herbs such as agarwood, sandalwood, amber powder and ambergris. This is the earliest record of agarwood in religious rites.
For thousands of years, this exceptional incense of agarwood
has inspired the Chinese about peace and harmony
Agarwood and faith
As the king of incense , agarwoodisusedasan offering by Buddhists, Taoists, Catholics, Christians and Islams.
1) Buddhism: It is stated in Chapter nineteen of The Lotus Sutra, “The Merits of Master Virtue” that the fragrance of agarwood can penetrate the three domains, which makes it an important offering. Pieces of agarwood o r agarwood powder is used in meditation, scripture chanting and other holy ceremonies. Agarwood is also used in making malas to be hung around necks and wrists. It is common for a Buddhist to hold a mala in his/her hand when reciting the scripture. Being warmed by body temperature, the agarwood mala would then release a fragrance that induces clarity and the peace of mind. It is also recorded in the Buddhist scripture that “one can cast away bad luck by burning the incense that sinks in water”.
2) Taoism: It advocates the natural law of “wu wei er zhi” (meaning Rule by Not Ruling) by Laozi and Zhuangzi. Agarwood is burned for meditation as well as when exorcism is being practised. The “smoky” scene is a representation of how the “qi” – energy – of heaven and earth is being unified. To practise the Taoist exercise for health, it is very common using agarwood to help awakening and enlightenment. When Zhang San-feng finished his work on earth and believed to have ascended to heaven, he was found disappearing from the cave leaving behind a pair of straw shoes and three pieces of agarwood.
3) Catholicism and Christianity: After Jesus was crucified, his body was covered with myrrh and agarwood. It was also an ancient Christian tradition for the bride and groom to plant an agarwood tree for their marriage. Agarwood is not only prestigious in Catholicism and Protestantism, but it is also used in the anointment ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and some of the Protestant churches, not to mention its role in blessing, prayer, funerals, etc. The holy oil is made of olive oil, agarwood, myrrh and musk. Ministers would the nuse the holy oil to draw crosses on patients' foreheads and palms, so as to bless them with spiritual suppor t and peace, as well as to help them to ask for God's forgiveness of their sins. Catholics believe that such sacraments would bring miracle healing to faithful patients. In fact , the word “Christ” means the Saviour and Lord; but as it originated from the Greek word “Khris ts”, which bears the meaning of “the anointed one”.
4) Islam: Agarwood is used in celebratory ceremonies and prayers. It is also used by the Hui, the Uygur and the Kazakh to practise a cleansing ceremony for the deceased – to clean the body three times with agarwood oil.
Agarwood and Chinese culture
For thousands of years, this exceptional incense of agarwood has inspired the Chinese about peace and harmony. According to the oracle bone script excavated from Yan Xu (dated to around 1400BC), “Sheng Min” from the Classic of Poetry, or Book of Odes, describes the ancestors of the people of the Zhou Dynasty using sweet wormwood, and the “Canon of Shun” from the Classic of History records Emperor Shun holding a grand ceremony known as “fengshan” at Mount Tai, where he burned firewood as offering. The oracle bone script also shows how the ancient Chinese of the time already made pine resin torches.
Chinese started to use incense as early as in 770 BC, but it was not until 206 BC that the emperors and royalties of the Han Dynasty had substantially enthroned the prestigious status of incense and made it a sensational item for everyone. During 220 AD to 589 AD, people used incense to “steam” their clothes to make them smell good. It was also a popular hobby for scholars to use incense. During the period of the Three Kingdoms, when Zhu Ge-liang practised his famous “Scheme of the Empty City”, he was playing music and enjoying a pot of incense, just to show how peaceful he was, while in fact he was bluffing the enemy with few soldiers in the city. In the Tang Dynasty, scholars became even more attached to incense – clothing, beddings, workplace, play houses… Incense was everywhere! Among all the incenses used – agarwood, sandalwood, ambergris and musk, agarwood was the most esteemed. After the Tang and Song Dynasties, incense appreciation had become an important trend. Along with tea, painting, and flower arrangement, these were coined as the “Four Arts of Chinese Scholar”, with details recorded in the three most important publications on incense – Xiang Sheng (A History of Incense), Xiang Pu (Material of Chinese Incense), and Chen Shi Xiang Pu (Material of Chinese Incense by Chen). Then, the culture of incense was brought to Japan by a monk named Kanjin, and it was later developed into the famous Kodo.
Among all the incenses used agarwood, sandalwood,
ambergris and musk, agarwood was the most esteemed
“A legacy of fragrant scholars” and “the continuation of the fragrance of the family”
It was the ultimate goal for ancient Chinese scholars to study diligently, went through rounds of examinations to get a better career in the government. Incense was widely used by royalties and commoners, in special occasions such a s receiving an Imperial Decree. Scholars would carry agarwood as lucky charms. The court beads on the robes of government officials were made of high quality agarwood. Agarwood was also used as insect deterrent for paintings and calligraphic art collection. People would describe an intellectual family as “a legacy of fragrant scholars” and the birth of children as “the continuation of the fragrance of the family”.
Incense was being glorified in brilliant poems by famous Chinese poets such as Li Houzhu, Li Shangyin, Wang Wei and Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty, Su Shi, Li Qingzhao and Zhu Xi of the Song Dynasty, as well as Cao Xueqin from the Qing Dynasty. “Burning Incense with Huang Luzhi” by Su Shi and “Burning Incense” by Chen Qu-fei were particularly well-written.
The production of agarwood
Agarwood trees grow in tropical rainforests, ranging from Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Hainan, Fukien in Mainland China, Lan Yu in Taiwan, Sumantra of Indonesia, Borneo that is co-governed by Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Lao, Cambodia, Sarawak of Malaysia, America and PapuaNew Guinea. The “agarwood incense” quality differs according to the assortment, place of origin, climate, water and soil.
Agarwood trees and agarwood incense are not the same. Agarwood as timber of the tree does not bear any scent. In fact, an agarwood tree does not produce agarwood incense until it is injured – by lightning, wind, insects, etc. When it is hurt, the agarwood tree would release resin to heal its wound. Years later, if this resinwrapped branch would have a chance to rot or break or fall with the whole tree and be covered with water and soil, the parts that are not covered with resin would decay and vanish eventually, but the resin-wrapped branch, being affected by different environmental factors, would evolve into different kinds of “agarwood incense”, commonly known as “aloe” or “agarwood”.
Scent therapy has been widely used in treating diseases
and in the maintenance of health
It takes a long time for agarwood to be formed – ranging from a number of decades to hundreds of years, depending on the quantity of the resin. Even if we plant a lot of agarwood trees now, it would take many years to harvest. The price of agarwood is way above that of gold. Production of premium agarwood is shrinking. The ranking of “agarwood incense” depends on the quality and quantity of resin that it carries. The best agarwood is Kinam, while Japanese call it “Kyara”.
Collection from “Scent of Mystery”
Our ancestors used to collect agarwood from rotten trees, while people nowadays sometimes wound the trees with spades and axes or drill holes on branches and then covered them with soil to induce the release of resin. Many trees have died and it is creating a serious survival problem for the species as well as the environment. Illegal hunting would only cause the trees to diminish and thus decreases the supply of such invaluable gifts from Mother Earth. Towards the end of the last century, agarwood was listed as a potentially threatened species of plant by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Many countries including India, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand have started to breed agarwood. There are also researches on speeding up the production of agarwood, say, by planting fungus in the trees. Although these researches are at the moment still quite premature, and natural agarwood is always preferred to manmade ones, it is still delightful to learn that our younger generations would have the chance to appreciate agarwood in the future.
Agarwood and today's technology
In 2004, two Amer ican scient ists R ichard Axel and Linda B. Buck were awarded the Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”, which unveiled a lot of unknown secrets of our smelling system.
In 1960, the first scented movie Scent of Mystery was shown in the United States. Different scents were released during the movie at different scenes, thus arousing public awareness on smell and sight communication. Shops and restaurants have been using it to attract customers. Top chefs have admitted that agarwood oil is added to food as a secret recipe. In recent years, much work has been devoted to research on the interaction and relationship between agarwood, s cent and odour on one hand and sense of smell on the other in signal transmission of the human brain to cure Parkinson's Disease and Dementia. Homeland Security systems identify terrorists and explosives by their smell. Olfactory is expected to create lots of opportunities and vigor in the biomedical arena, such as the breath test to diagnose health. In 2004, Champion Technology Group also developed the world's first key for preventing drunk-driving based on testing the exhaled breath. It has also become a world trend for high-tech households to have a specially-designed scent that matches with lighting and music. It can be predicted that there will more innovations using scent as a means of communication.
The medicinal value of agarwood is also highly acknowledged. Agarwood is used as medicine in the old traditions in Islam, India, Tibet and South East Asia. In Chinese medicine, agarwood, as well as rhino horns, calculus bovis and caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) are all very precious medicines used in removing negativity, bringing peace to the body, building energy, treating cardiopathy, stomach aches, even cancers. The “Agarwood Pills for Immortality” from The Fine Formulae of Wonderful Efficacy by Fang Xian of the Ming Dynasty was a famous Taoist recipe in strengthening one's longevity. In Japan, the domestic Chinese medicine for cardiopathy contains agarwood. There was a story that the cigarettes that the late Deng Xiao-ping smoked – the Panda brand – contained agarwood too. The medicines used in first aid in Vietnam also contain agarwood. It is believed that agarwood can revive unconscious patients.
Scent therapy has been widely used in treating diseases and in the maintenance of health. A lot of incenses can serve the purpose of an effective painkiller, tranquilizer or stimulant. They are also applied in the formulae of some medicines such as soothing ointments and balms. Speaking of scent therapy, aromatherapy and flower essence therapy must be taken into account. Some illnesses can be healed upon the smelling of the scents of certain flowers, as the scents given off by flowers, stems and leaves may regulate our mental and physical conditions, stimulate our endocrine glands and boost our immune system, thereby restoring or enhancing our health. Such hospitals have been opened in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan for treating cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, tracheitis, asthma and psychasthenia. Some casinos and businesses use scents to attract customers.
Do not give up independent thinking
even though your thoughts do not go with others
Not realizing the treasure we have
There are numerous fables about agarwood, one such legend has it that the son of a wealthy man envied other merchants selling their charcoal so quickly, and he burned his father's agarwood into charcoal which was soon sold out. His father almost had a heart attack.
We all have our own agarwood. The problem is whether we realize the value of ours. People tend to envy others' possessions rather than to cherish our own agarwood. Do not give up independent thinking even though your thoughts do not go with others. At the same time, do not be too stubborn on your own thoughts and give up the chance of listening to others.
I would like to appeal to those who hewed agarwood trees in Hong Kong. Stop this please! I would like to propose to the Government to plant more agarwood trees around Hong Kong even though only our grand children may see the benefits. This will remind us all with the origin of the name “Hong Kong”. This is something I cannot achieve alone but requires the introduction of relevant government policies. If the Government would consider such a move, we would support.
It is via exhibitions of old items that I would like to promote the idea on the conservation of old possessions. Do not dispose of such items easily for it creates litter, increases demand of more landfills and damages our environment. Moreover, an old item may bring wealth to its owner.
Round, Pure, Subtle, Access and Harmony
Last but not least, may we all remember the five characteristics of appreciating incense: Round, Pure, Subtle, Access and Harmony. Harmony, the ultimate essence of incense, is in line with the harmonious society that we long for and that we wish to build for our future.
May I wish you all long life, good health, bliss, peace and harmony.
Note: H. E. Paul Kan, CBE, GCM, Comm OSSI, Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, SBS, JP is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Hungary; Chairman of Champion Technology Holdings Limited; Kantone Holdings Limited; DIGITALHONGKONG.COM; A Better Tomorrow; Chinese World Cultural Heritage Foundation; and World Cultural Relics Protection Foundation; Patron of International Foundation for Art Research; and Member of the Arts and Treasures Evaluation Committee of the Ministry of Culture of China.