Aromas, Scents, and Spices Olfactory Culture in China before the Arrival of Buddhism

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Olivia Milburn



Research into early Chinese olfactory culture is only just beginning. This paper argues that before the arrival of Buddhism, elite scent culture had already begun to be transformed by the importation of foreign aromatics, though these substances arrived shorn of their original cultural context. Prior to the importing of intense foreign perfumes, the aromatics available were mostly local, and traditional Chinese practice stressed the use of individual scents in religious contexts, a concept which also had a profound influence on secular usage. The same is true of early osmographies, which link particular kinds of smells—including many that might be considered unpleasant—to the changing seasons. When foreign spices and aromatics arrived in China for the first time, a phenomenon later literature specifically associates with the reign of Han Wudi, this resulted in the development of new complex and powerful perfumes. This in turn may have had a significant impact upon the material culture of Han China, with the spread of personal scenting devices and incense burners.

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