Fragrant Songs: Scent Culture in Medieval China


American Research in the Humanities in China


Suzhou University


This is a new study of the culture of aromatics in Tang-Dynasty China (618-907). Aromatics are defined as fragrant flowers and leaves, grasses and leaves, barks and roots, herbs and spices, gums and resins. The discovery of aromatics and their increasing consumption provide a window on Chinese culture, from evolving attitudes toward nature and the supernatural; China’s interface with the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia; the role of aromatics in court culture and everyday life; to literary representations of aromatics. This study is anchored between material culture and aesthetics, between techno-culture and imaginative expressions; it draws on studies of Chinese religion, medicine, science, political economy, folklore, art history, and literature, as well as modern Western studies of scent. This project makes two original contributions by offering: 1) an overview of Chinese scent culture from the antiquity to the tenth century, and 2) a critical analysis of images of smell in Tang poetry. Visuality is universally considered a defining feature of Chinese language and poetry; this study opens a new avenue of inquiry by trying to understand how images of smell formulate and convey poetic experience in the context of Chinese scent culture.