Tracing Incense: The Affective Power of Objects
Incense has been an integral part of Chinese culture since before the introduction of Buddhism in the third century B.C.E. A rise in the popularity of Buddhist practice marked an increase in the importation, production, and use of incense in China. Incense was used for everything from acting as an aid in the most mundane activities, like telling time, to accomplishing the most extraordinary activities, like helping Buddhist practitioners achieve instant enlightenment. Yet, despite incense being a seemingly integral part of Chinese history and culture the government has created a policy limiting the use of incense in Buddhist temples. “Tracing Incense: The Affective Power of Objects” asks the question: what can be gained by introducing new materialism and affect theory to religious studies research? Specifically, how can embodied, sensory observations of incense in four Buddhist temples in Shanghai enrich our understanding of contemporary Chinese Buddhism? There is scholarship discussing the role of material objects in religion, as well as scholarship introducing affect theory to religious studies but there is little to no writing that brings religious studies into conversation with both new materialism and affect theory to investigate what each theoretical model lends to the other and to the greater study of religion. To illustrate how material and affect based research can be helpful in developing the field of religious studies, I will share my observations of incense in four Buddhist temples in Shanghai that I gathered while conducting sound and smellwalks. I will analyze my data using concepts from new materialism and affect theory. I will move past my observations to think about the socio-political entanglements that incense, and Chinese Buddhism are enmeshed in. I will argue that the limitation of the use of incense in Buddhist temples in an effort to control, monitor, and reduce religious practices. “Tracing Incense: The Affective Power of Objects” will conclude by arguing that introducing new materialism and affect theory to religious studies offers new and exciting ways of learning about the complexities of lived traditions.