Incense burners were used from at least the fifth century b.c. but it wasn't until Han that they were made in the shape of mountains. Called po-shan-lu
, the vessel is the embodiment of the sacred mountains that were believed to be an intermediary realm between heaven and earth in Han cosmology. The mountain peak may actually represent Mount Peng-lai, the magical realm of the Taoist immortals.
This censer mountain has numerous figures and animals in relief amidst swirling clouds and clustered trees. The stylized cliffs have apertures behind them to allow the incense smoke to emerge as if it were clouds or vapor in the landscape. The figures include a monkey, tigers pursuing bears and dogs and several mountain spirits (hsien), one shown seated playing a zither (ch'in), another playing a reed instrument (sheng), and two riding horseback. The dish was for catching burning particles of incense or charcoal.