August 23, 2009

Chinese Perfume - The Temple of Heaped Fragrance

I have seen it reported (in the NYT) that in contemporary China, Western marketing research has concluded that "clean" scents are preferred, or even "scentless" products. If this is true, it proves what a tremendous a break there has been between the past and the present in this large area of the world. It can't be denied that the Cultural Revolution of Mao did accomplish an unprecedented break with the past. Now that the time of gigantic historic cataclysms seems to have receded in China, it could be possible again to be inspired by a past which had a deep affinity for perfume in all its forms and uses.

You can reach this past through the great Chinese poets, and find a strong predilections and taste for scent. The direct opposite of a scentless aesthetic held great sway throughout China for more than a thousand years. Following my own winding road from reading a novel set in ancient China, I began reading old Chinese poetry, and have been struck by how frequently fragrance is cited. In the Chinese past, perfumes and natural scents carried great sensual and spiritual significance. Woods, balsams, incense, florals, and musks were treasured and appreciated with the greatest subtlety as to associations with the seasons, the passage of time, the understanding of a personality, the decoration of the body (both male and female) and as part of spirituality and mythology.

Wang Wei (A.D. 701 - 761)

Not knowing the way to the Temple of Heaped Fragrance,
Under miles of mountain-cloud I have wandered
Through ancient woods without a human track;
But now on the height I hear a bell.
A rillet sings over winding rocks,
The sun is tempered by green pines....
And at twilight, close to an emptying pool,
Thought can conquer the Passion-Dragon.

Li Yu (A.D. 937-975)

A heavenly woman's imprisoned in the palace at Penglai Hill,
All are silent as she sleeps by day in the painted hall.
Her glossy hair is spread like cloud on the pillow,
Her embroidered clothes bear a wondrous fragrance.
I secretly come and slide the pearl lock back,
She's startled from her dream behind the silver screen.
Her smiling face is overflowing with bliss,
We gaze at each other with unbounded love.

A modern historical fiction based on true events , Lisa See's novel "Peony in Love" is a vision of 17th Century China, about the tragic life of a lovesick maiden and her haunting the living with her love after death. The theme of the lovesick maiden inspired poetry and opera in ancient times which in turn influenced the character of the individuals who followed to experience life through the stylistic lens of this poetry and music. It's fair to say that ancient Chinese culture had great influence on most Asian cultures -- a large part of the world -- and therefore had a vast reach and depth. The sensibility of the Chinese scholar poets and writers who steeped themselves in the ephemeral nature of beauty clearly depict the practice and use of a heightened awareness of scent to enhance all forms of experience.

Wang Wei (A.D. 701-761)

...On her painted pavilions, facing red towers,
Cornices are pink and green with peach-bloom and with willow,

Canopies of silk awn her seven-scented chair,
And rare fans shade her, home to her nine-flowered curtains.

In addition to scenting the skin and hair, the wealthy had paper and ink, furniture and clothing, houses and temples enhanced by fragrance. Incense was greatly appreciated, and cosmetics were also perfumed and used with refinement. For example, lipstick was worn by wealthy women who imprinted the form of their lips onto a fine fabric and gave it as a gift to their lovers. Sandalwood fans, camphor-wood carvings and statues, rosewater imported from Persia, jasmine scented oils, ginger and nutmeg from Indonesia and patchouli from India were traded from very early times. Distillation of many different essential oils was highly developed, and had spiritual significance because the Taoists believed that the soul of the plant was released in its fragrance. Perfume was divided into six moods: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble.

The "ordinary" people carried perfume pouches and used them as personal gifts. This practice survives today in the Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

Li Po (A.D. 701-762)

Bathed in fragrance,
do not brush your hat,

Washed in perfume,
do not shake your coat:

Knowing the world
fears what is too pure,
The wisest man
prizes and stores light!....

There exists a deep cultural affinity to perfume in Chinese culture which must manifest itself again once the door is re-opened to the use of perfume in everyday life. Something to look forward to.


chayaruchama said...

Oh, Lu !
The eroticism is delicate, but palpable...
I can hardly BEAR it.

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Lucy said...

C, yes, there are no hesitations or excuses made about the pursuit of pleasure...

Trish said...


Lovely and insightful post as usual :-)

Here's the link to the Japanese incense powder I was telling you about. It's such a sensual experience!

PS: Did you see my Enfleurage post?

Lucy said...

Dear Trish, I just read your lovely post -- you are a great advocate for Enfleurage. I was just thinking of them today and every day I use the jasmine sambac concrete (and of you since you were there). I am carrying the jas sam with me everywhere in my bag these days.
It lifts up on the warm breeze so well without being too sweet -- soglad you are enjoying the tuberrose butter so much.

Trish said...

Long live Enfleurage! Hope those indie shops keep on keeping on, you know?

I too am loving the jasmine sambac concrete. It's a little spicy, somewhat indolic, but true to the lovely jasmine lush experience.

So glad we got to meet, eat and go there together!


ScentScelf said...

Forgive me, L...I have been back more than once to enjoy your post, and neglected to tell you how you enlightened and brightened my day.

Those modes are an interesting paradigm over which to consider fragrance. And I am feeling oh-so-hip for having picked up a scented wooden fan to breeze myself with this summer...even if it did embarass my teenage son. :)

Lucy said...

My goodness SS -- those teenage boys are so easy to spook -- I guess using a fan is being too "different" and we know that being different is very difficult for teenagers to deal with.
Love the idea of scented wood wafting on a fan into the face...

ScentScelf said...

And fickle, those teenagers. Mind you, *he* can choose to wear a pink shirt, or confound his classmates by wearing a button down to class, or whatever sartorial something he chooses, but it is of course for the parent to be...neutral. :)

Next summer, I am stocking up on fans and scenting my own. That way, I can pick the scent according to mood/weather/need. And maybe make gifts for friends.

Lucy said...

Great idea! And maybe you will start an Etsy shop so the rest of us can get one from you -- a wardrobe of 7 for each day of the week...

Mary said...

Beautiful post, Lucy. Thank you.

+ Q perfume Blog said...

Lovely, I loved this article so much!!!!TKS