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.
TOWARD THE TEMPLE OF HEAPED FRAGRANCEA 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)
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.
A HEAVENLY WOMAN'S IMPRISONED IN THE PALACE
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.
from A SONG OF A GIRL FROM LOYANG
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.
from BATHED AND WASHED
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.