The present stand was likely used as an incense stand, or xiangji, and follows the classic, more traditional form of Ming-style furniture emphasizing purity of line, subtlety in decoration, simplicity and restraint. However, it is of interest to note that incense stands were also used to display flower vases, rock sculptures and other decorative ornaments.
Wang Shixiang, in Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, vol. I, Hong Kong, 1990, pp. 52-54, explains the importance of the incense stand, xiangji, within the context of the traditional Chinese home, as well as in Buddhist and Daoist temples. "In wealthy homes, they were placed in large halls to support censers where all types of exotic fragrances including flower and plant petals, and animal essences were burned." Wang continues to explain that, "in temples as well as in private homes, incense stands were designed to fit the scale of the room. This rule was echoed in the Lu Ban Jing which emphasized that incense stands should be in proportion to the room in which they were placed."
For a very interesting discussion on incense stands, their origins and use, see Sarah Handler, Austere Luminosity of Classical Chinese Furniture, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 295-302, where the author explores the inspirational role played by the incense stand in the life of the Chinese literati who would commonly use incense to induce a poetic state of mind. As Handler explains, "When a scholar prepares to write a poem, paint a picture, or play the zither - activities that assume rapture - incense is indispensible. It is a spiritual stimulant that, when mixed with rare feeling and inspiration, dissipates gloom that would otherwise paralyze the artist's creativity. Because the incense stand carried the incense burner, it was a singular stimulating agent in the moment of artistic creation and in the ceremony of a scholar's way of life. In China both stand and burner are found together wherever the arts are practiced, for from the summit of the incense stand emanates that aromatic intoxicant that induces in the artist a mystical state in which one is no longer aware of dwelling amongst men."
For a similar, slightly larger, (33 5/8 in. high) example see Grace Wu Bruce, Living with Ming - the Lu Ming Shi Collection, Paris, 2000, pp. 94-95, no. 17, dated late 16th to early 17th century, which has similar construction including the single panel of huamu inset at the top. See, also, Grace Wu Bruce, Dreams of Chu Tan Chamber and the Romance with Huanghuali Wood: The Dr. S.Y. Yip Collection of Classic Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1991, pp. 98-99, no. 36, for an example dated late 16th to early 17th century, and also with the huamu floating panel at the top.
Numerous additional examples of incense stands in forms different from the present example are known, and several can be found in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 167-81, nos. 149-63. For examples of how these incense stands would be used in-situ in the Palace, see Ming Qing Gong Jia Ju Da Guan, Beijing, 2006, pp. 668-69, fig. 774, p. 681, fig. 778, and p. 685, figs. 780-1.