Burning Incense (一炷香)

Daily rituals–burning incense, drinking a cup of tea, finishing a meal–can be ways of measuring time.


When I was little, my mom used to burn incense at home. It burned very slow, and the smell would linger all afternoon. In Chinese, there is an old phrase called “yi zhu xiang” (一炷香). It literally means “the burning of an incense stick,” but it is actually a unit of time. People don’t say it anymore, but in old books, you could see sentences like “after the burning of an incense, she still hasn’t arrived,” or “he figured it out in the burning of an incense.” The burning of an incense signifies an innumerable duration. It originated from a common activity, and has become a shared notion of time in culture.

Smoking a cigarette, burning an incense stick, drinking a cup of tea, enjoying a meal–all are ways of time-keeping

In my life today, time is most often measured numerically, which I always find stressful. I think the burning of an incense stick embodies the personal, poetic, and leisurely possibility of time-keeping. Therefore, I made this virtual incense time-keeper, as a reminiscence of the days when I didn’t have to be so obsessed with numerical time.

How it works

You can pick up a short incense or a long incense, and light it up. The short incense will keep a relatively short period of time, and the long incense will keep a relatively long period of time. The exactly duration is pseudo-random. You wouldn’t know how long it is. All you can see is the incense slowly shortening.

You can play with it here. OpenProcessing runs super slow for my sketch, because the particle system algorithm is very costly.

I envision using it in my free time. Maybe I want to read a book, or take a nap. Then I would burn a long incense. Maybe I want to do a few jumping jacks, then I would burn the short incense. Using this time-keeper, I wouldn’t get bothered by numbers. I will simply get a vague idea of time and focus on what I am doing instead.

The challenging parts of the process were story-boarding and developing a visual language. Since I was essentially making an application for people to play, I thought it was important to design an experience that doesn’t confuse anybody. I didn’t want to include text instructions, which made it even harder. The visual language was tricky because I wanted to go for a hyper-realistic feel. I tried to combine the geometric features of p5.js and photos I took, while maintaining a consistent aesthetic.


Personal critique

Why does this need to be on the screen? We have incense in real life, so why don’t we just burn an actual incense stick? I guess I could argue this is an attempt to find a peace of mind on the screen. But I don’t totally buy it. I have to personally use it more to judge whether it actually accomplishes that.

documentation on course website