The man walked behind a counter, took out a bracelet and put it lightly in front of Shi Lei.
“These are the cheapest items I have here. Pick it up and have a look.”
Shi Lei followed his words. As he picked up the bracelet, fragrance emitted from it. It was slightly different to the one in the shop, but also seemed similar.
Seeing that Shi Lei moved his nose, he asked: “Do you smell it?”
Shi Lei nodded and asked: “What kind of wood is this? It smells so nice. It’s sort of similar to the one in your shop but completely different.”
The man was slightly surprised as he asked with interest: “Oh? How is it different?”
Shi Lei held the bracelet next to his nose and realised that the smell was a lot lighter when it was close. It wasn’t gladdening him and refreshing his mind as much as to when it had some distance away from him.
“I don’t really know how to say this because I’ve never smelt anything like this before. The smell of this bracelet seemed to be more contained and deeper. It’s also more obvious at times due to a milky smell. But the smell in your shop is rather bold and unrestrained with a hint of spiciness in it. But after I got used to it, the spiciness seemed to change into a sweet taste. I can even taste that in my mouth.”
The man studied Shi Lei from head to toe and laughed: “You sure are an interesting one. You came in contact with agarwood for the first time and you could say that much about it. Not easy, not easy. Haha, it’s fate that you came in. It’s almost time to close anyways, if you are interested, would you like to sit down and have a cup of tea with me, I’ll talk a bit about the agarwood?”
Shi Lei laughed and quickly said: “That’s too inconvenient. Your prices are rather high and I don’t think I can afford it for certain.”
“I’m not promoting it to you. Do you know why I invited you to sit down?” The man took back the bracelet but didn’t put it in the counter either. He walked behind the table with it and gestured Shi Lei to sit down opposite him.
“I said that it’s destiny that you walked in. Usually, no customers come in after 4pm. Usually the clients here are those old clients who frequently come here for small items. Today, one of my friends gave me some good tea. I just brewed the tea and thought that good tea should be accompanied with good incense, so I burnt some incense I kept privately. As soon as I burnt it, you came in. That’s the fate I’m talking about.”
Shi Lei waved his hands in a hurry and said: “I just came in and thought I’d kill some time here……”
“That’s fate. If you came purposely, it wouldn’t be fate anymore.”
Shi Lei watched the man brew a pot of tea, poured two cups, used bamboo tongs and picked up one of them. He placed it down in front of Shi Lei and gestured him to drink.
After a sip, Shi Lei thought that the tea was quite good although he understood nothing about it.
“How’s the tea?” The man asked casually. A glimmer of smile filled his eyes as he looked at Shi Lei.
Shi Lei put down the cup, pondered for a while but could not find a suitable word to describe the tea, so he said: “The tea is good.”
“Is that it?”
Shi Lei was rather embarrassed and lowered his head: “I don’t know anything about tea. I wanted to find words to describe it, but I could find nothing, so I can only say it’s good.”
“Haha, this is the highest state of tasting tea. There’s no sugary descriptions, but plainly ‘good tea’. About these two words, there’s a literal quotation of it, but I won’t make a fool of myself. If you are interested, you can Baidu(1) it. It’s related to Lu Yu, the saint of tea.”
Shi Lei nodded and asked: “You haven’t told me how you knew that it was my first time here and I knew nothing about antiques!”
The man refilled the tea for Shi Lei and said: “When I said it’s your first time here, because I could tell that to antiques, you, hmm, I’ll just say that you knew nothing about it. Because if it wasn’t your first time here, or if you have a very shallow understanding of antiques, you won’t be surprised by my price here. Even if you knew a tiny bit about antiques, you would definitely know what is agarwood. There was a saying of ‘the Four Great Peculiar Incense’, and it was about the four best incenses back in the ancient times. The first of these four incenses are agarwood, followed by ambergris, moschus and sandalwood. I’m sure even if you don’t have interest in antiques, but you should’ve heard of moschus and sandalwood, right?”
Shi Lei nodded and said: “One of the painkiller cream for rheumatism has moschus in it. As for sandalwood, my impression of it were the sandalwood fans I had when I was young.”
The man also nodded and said: “What you mentioned aren’t real moschus and sandalwood. The first is manmade moschus. If they were to use natural moschus in medicines, barely anyone would be able to afford it. As for sandalwood, it is art and craft. They only used the sandalwood incense to taint the fan with its smell. If it was a real sandalwood fan, it would be expensive.”
“Haha, I really don’t know anything about these. I think I heard about ambergris in dramas before, but not so much on agarwood.”
“That’s because agarwood was way more precious and valuable than any other incense, which you can see from the price in my shop. The one I just showed you can barely be called as agarwood. It has low lipid and it was created manually. Technically, agarwood isn’t what I’m holding right now. This wood is called aquilaria sinensis. The wood itself does not have any smell and its structure is rather loose. It should be one of the wood with the loosest structure in the natural world. This plant grows in the wild and it was inevitable to be bitten by bugs and insects, or even being struck by lightning or flooded, and it would leave a scar behind. As soon as this wood is injured, it begins to produce a lipid to fix its wounds. As time passes, it may take as short as a few decades, or as long as centuries, to become the agarwood in my hands.”
Shi Lei seemed to understand and said: “So, basically, agarwood is the lipid in the wood. The more lipid, the more agarwood, and the more expensive the price becomes.”
The man smiled and sipped his tea: “You are right. This is the principle. But of course, when the agarwood is forming, it may have to go through different situations. The one that made you exclaim just then was the best amongst agarwood. The main way for agarwood to form is either through water, soil or insects. The ones formed through water and soil can be called Dao Jia agarwood. And the so-called Dao Jia means that after the aquilaria sinensis dies, some are submerged in water and some are buried in the soil. As time passes, the parts without lipid are rotten, and the parts that coagulated are the ones that remained. As for the insects, it is caused by insect bites.”
Shi Lei felt like he broadened his knowledge. Perhaps these things could be found online, but it would never be as clear and simple as this man’s explanation.
“The agarwood now are mostly Dao Jia. The ones formed through insects are all bought by people. Because agarwood is a rare incense, ever since the ancient times till nowadays, there are people who farm these wood. They purposely cut the aquilaria sinesis with knives in order to wound it and make it secrete lipid. But because this is only way to do it, the agarwood formed are usually a thin layer on top of it. It can be made into spice or power for incense, but it’s impossible to be made into things like the bracelet. As technology advances, people inject pathogenic bacteria into the aquilaria sinensis to keep it secrete lipid and gradually, we have the prosperous agarwood market you see now.”
(1) Baidu: equivalent search engine to Google in China