heung louh (Incense Burner)

About this object

History of use

Hakka and Cantonese people in Hong Kong who practice Chinese popular religion burn paper offerings as a way of transmitting them to gods and ancestors, as do other Chinese sub-ethnic groups. The imagery of the offerings represents actual objects such as clothing, money, gold and silver ingots, and even special objects believed to be desired by individual ancestors such as cars, servants, and houses. People believe that ancestors receive them as actual objects to be used by them in the underworld. These are offered during funeral rituals and at ancestors’ graves and tombs when ancestors are worshipped during festivals dedicated to this purpose, Ching Ming in the spring and Chung Yeung in the autumn. In addition, incense and candles are burned as offerings for both gods and ancestors. Larger sticks of incense are burned for high-ranking gods. The incense is made of ground sandalwood, rolled by hand onto the sticks. After being lit, it is stuck into an incense burner filled with sand. Usually three sticks are burned at a time, but sometimes only one. People also make offerings of food, wine, and tea to both gods and ancestors. The food offerings are carefully prepared and arranged on serving dishes, and placed on special tables in front of the altars in temples, halls for worshipping ancestors, and shrines dedicated to particular gods. There is a hierarchy of gods and the highest are worshipped first, although not all may be worshipped in sequence. The highest are the Heavenly Gods and individual high-ranking gods with responsibility for particular territories or people in particular occupational or other categories. These gods may have temples devoted to them. Below them are gods responsible for protecting villages, wells, etc. and who have shrines where they are worshipped. Below them are gods who protect households. There are differences among the ritual practices of various south Chinese sub-ethnic groups. Hakka people worship with a whole chicken, pork, and sometimes a whole roast pig, and squid, as well as fruit. They also do not differentiate the paper offerings, and simply burn them all together. Cantonese people offer them separately, and use a whole chicken, cut up, when worshipping gods, together with a fish, a bowl of rice, and fruit. Hakka people burn incense and candles on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month, while Cantonese people should worship every morning and evening. Low-grade paper offerings are also used to placate ghosts in some situations. Some groups make special offerings to wandering ghosts in the 7th month, when they are released from the underworld. For Hakka people, regular worship is normally performed by women, whereas men are responsible to the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung worship of ancestors, although women assist.


From a ritual goods shop in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. Relatively small sticks of incense like those burned in this pot would be offered to ancestors and gods at ordinary worship. Some people also offer three very large sticks of incense to gods, or thick coils that would hang from a temple ceiling and burn for a long time. This incense burner is typical of those fastened to the wall on the proper right side of the main door of a house, where it is used for lighting incense for the Heavenly Gods. Mrs. Kwok Fung, Yin-ha, of Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, gave invaluable help to Elizabeth Johnson in the selection and purchase of these offering materials and in explaining their meaning and how they were used.

Iconographic meaning

The red and gold colours of this incense pot are both auspicious and protective. The symbols on it are also auspicious, the coins representing wealth and the bats representing good fortune.

Physical description

Half-cylindrical cup-shaped tin burner with tapered foot on red coloured back board. Top of the corners of the back board are cut on the diagonal and there is a hole in the centre. Outer surface of burner is yellow and red and is decorated with Chinese characters. On either side of the piece, there are two handle-like protrusions that bend upwards, are threaded through a circular disk and attach near the rim of the piece by two small nails.