Aromas, scents, and spices: olfactory culture in China before the arrival of Buddhism.

Author:Milburn, Olivia

Research into early Chinese olfactory culture is at present in its infancy. Although both Chinese and Western scholars have conducted ground-breaking research into certain aspects of this tradition, the focus of their work has been concentrated in certain specific fields. In particular, there has been much interest in the use of aromatics in early Chinese traditional medicine, both in terms of transmitted textual evidence and the discoveries made through archaeological excavations, most notably the perfume sachets and collections of medicinal herbs excavated at Mawangdui--a tomb complex dated to 186-168 B.C.E. In addition, there have been a number of studies of the use of incense before the unification of China in 221 B.C.E. and in the early imperial period, during the Qin (221-206 B.C.E.) and Han dynasties (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), including analysis of the history of use of particular scents. This branch of research has also been heavily influenced by archaeological discoveries, given that many excavated Han tombs have been shown to contain incense burners, either in the form of ceramic mingqi (funerary goods) or genuine examples used in life. (1) Finally, there have been a number of studies of individual aromatics--both local and exotic imported spices and woods--which have attracted a great deal of attention for their role in clarifying the history of Chinese involvement in international trade. (2) Many of these products are known to have been derived from beyond the borders of China proper; the importation of cloves, cinnamon, frankincense, gharuwood, sandalwood, and so on served to tie China into the global economy. (3) However, what is missing is an analysis of Chinese olfactory culture in general--that is, an understanding of how ancient Chinese people understood and classified the world of scent.

The first part of this paper considers the archeological evidence. Recent discoveries have served to clarify the development of particular types of objects associated with scent use, such as incense burners, spice pillows, and spice bags. Some exceptionally well-preserved sites also contain surviving ancient plant material, whereby the specific plants used in ancient China as perfumes and spices can be studied in some detail. The second part of this paper describes the religious use of aromatics in ancient times, concentrating specifically on the period prior to the unification of China. Although universally agreed to be extremely important for understanding early olfactory culture, it is rarely more than mentioned in passing in modern scholarship. Given that smoke and vapor were believed to be one of the most important ways to communicate with the gods, spirits, and deceased ancestors, and that many sacrificial rituals were structured around burning particular items to produce the desired aroma, it is impossible to develop a full picture of ancient Chinese scent culture without considering the religious connotations. This is followed by a discussion of theories concerning the classification of scent, found within early ritual and philosophical texts. Finally, this paper will consider the revolution in the use of aromatics which later sources ascribe to the extensive campaigns of conquest undertaken by Han Wudi (r. 141-87 B.C.E.). By opening up the Silk Road to the northwest and capturing the lands of Nanyue (modern day Guangdong Province and northern Vietnam) to the south, Han-dynasty China was able to import many exotic spices directly for the first time in its history. Although the extent of change in Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-9 C.E.) use of aromatics is debatable, in the longer term this opening of trade undoubtedly had an enormous impact on the types of substances and the equipment being used for the creation of scent and the meanings attached to it. With the arrival of Buddhism at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.), China came into contact with a very sophisticated and highly developed scent culture from India, which would result in further great changes. That, however, lies beyond the scope of this paper.


People in ancient China used braziers for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from heating rooms, warming food and drink, or drying clothes, to perfuming a room through the burning of, first, scented woods and then incense. The question of exactly when incense burners were first developed as an independent form is highly controversial; it is frequently suggested in modern scholarship on pre-unification and early Western Han dynasty aromatics that prior to the conquests of Han Wudi, the people of China--even at the highest levels of the ruling elite--did not have access to plant material that would produce a good scent when burnt. (4) Whether or not this theory is correct, the earliest incense burner which seems to be universally accepted as such by Chinese scholars is the extremely fine Warring States-era bronze dou-shaped burner on an open-work base and surmounted by the sculpted figure of a bird, which was excavated from Fengxiang County in Shaanxi Province in 1997. (5) This exceptionally high-quality object was excavated from the ruins of the Qin palace site, located within the confines of the former capital city of Yong . The type of aromatic which would have been used with this burner is not known. However, the lidded cup form of this particular incense burner, based upon the dou form of bronze vessels (a type mainly used for the sacrificial presentation of soups and other liquids), suggests that a sacrificial vessel shape was being adapted for use as an incense burner, rather than developing from pre-existing brazier forms. (6) By far the most famous incense burners in use during the period under consideration here are the boshanlu or mountain-shaped incense burners. This form, which suddenly appeared during the reign of Han Wudi, is now thought to have derived from a Middle Eastern incense burner design, where a bowl is topped with a stepped geometric cover, found in Achaemenid Persia and Assyria. (7) Although the appearance of this new form of burner suggests some change in the usage of scent at the Han court, modern scholarship suggests that it was entirely due to new cultural developments such as the belief that mountains represent a microcosm of the world, or a much increased interest in contacting the immortals, believed to reside on islands far out to sea. However, the possibility that it was affected by new aromatics being available to the court should also be considered.

At present, the earliest known personal scenting equipment to survive from ancient China is a pair of carved deer-horn pomanders (xiangqiu) excavated from the tomb of Lady Jiang Shou (d. ca. 570 B.C.E.) in Changqing County, Shandong Province in 1995. (8) The tiny (4 cm long) and exceptionally beautifully carved pair of pomanders feature an openwork lattice pattern composed of intertwined serpents, indicating that they were used for some coarsely textured aromatic rather than a powder. This find is important for indicating the antiquity of the use of pomanders in China; previously the earliest known examples dated to the Tang dynasty and were made from precious metals, such as the examples given by the imperial house housed in the treasury of the Famensi. (9) These Tang dynasty pomanders are extensively described in contemporary literature; however, the discovery of this Spring and Autumn period (771-475 B.C.E.) tomb indicates that such items are likely to have had a much longer undocumented history in China. In this context it is relevant to mention a small group of ceramic scenting devices referred to in archaeological reports as xiangxun (censer), which have not received much attention at all. This term describes a kind of small bowl (most excavated examples to date seem to be under 10 cm in diameter) with a pierced lid and occasionally pierced sides as well, apparently for containing scented material; however, this is not a type of incense burner, because there is no foot to keep the item off the surface it stands on. (10) Should it become hot, it would undoubtedly scorch the table beneath. It would therefore seem likely that this was a holder for a substance like potpourri.

In addition to burning incense, ancient Chinese people also bathed in scented waters. There are numerous references in ritual texts to the production and use of scented waters in ritual purification; this practice is also described in the Chuci (Songs of Chu), a collection of poems dating to the Warring States (475-221 B.C.E.) to early Han dynasty and associated with the ancient kingdom of Chu, which has long been noted for its rich imagery concerning taste and scent. (11) It is possible that there was some special paraphernalia required for the maceration or other preparation of plant material for the production of these waters, but if so, such objects have not been identified. In spite of some efforts to equate excavated water jars and basins from Chu tombs with the presentation of scented waters as described in Chu literature, such attributions remain almost entirely speculative. (12) There is one find which does throw some light upon these practices; the 1995 excavation of the early Western Han dynasty tomb of the king of Chu at Shizishan in Xuzhou saw the discovery of a large silver basin. At the time of excavation, the basin contained an exfoliator, a lacquered wooden box housing cosmetics, and a lacquered bamboo box containing towels and some unidentified plant material. (13) These leaves are likely to have been used in connection with washing, whether for scenting the waters or scenting the towels, given the context in which they were found.

In terms of archaeological discoveries of aromatics, the Western Han dynasty tomb complex at Mawangdui is of particular importance, not least because this site has been extensively studied with a view to identifying the plants found there...

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