It’s an unruly little thing that could scream, murmur, and everything in between. Ultimate versus wanton, this almighty, sinful, polarizing piece of weaponry is in fact per fumus — “through smoke” or “perfume” in Latin. Vicky Huang blazes through China’s smoky history.
During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), perfume legit could terrorize like a weapon. Whoever had the audacity to smell like a Western bourgeois was subjected to humiliation — add a drop or two. And when the country overthrew the Gang of Four in 1976/77, get your China History on, people had either forgotten such a thing existed or decided that it made more sense to put their hard-earned cash to household necessities at a time of widespread poverty.
A smoky and sultry troublemaker perhaps, yet perfume wasn’t as devilishly foreign as Mao Zedong had made it seem.
You smell something there? So do we.
Communist Mao was turning his nose away from China’s long history of olfactory opulence. Long before France’s Louis XV (1710-1774) ushered in la cour parfumée (“the perfumed court” in French), China had already formed elaborate etiquettes and entertainment based on xiāng (香| “incense,” “perfume,” “herbs” or “spices” in Chinese) starting in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).
Perfumes Are a Taoist’s Best Friend
Chinese culture was built on three pillars: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. And Taoism, dating as far back as third or fourth century BC, the jury’s still out on that one, pursued body-spirit harmony through xiāng. Practitioners saw a parallel between the transformation of solid incense to vaporized scents and that of mortal stagnation to spiritual awakening.
In essence, one-third of Chinese culture had deemed xiāng a salvation for centuries, when Communist China from 1949 onwards ruled it a decadent disgrace in the country’s not-so-distant past. Yet lo and behold, check out the Chanel No. 5-XXX dominating China’s Snuffleupagus market today.
Times they are a-changing.
Even Royalty, For Pete’s Sake
Indeed, xiāng was revered by those who were sick of the material and political games at hand. But guess what? It was equally sought after by feudalists.
Fragrant oils, flowers, sandalwood, and spices brought from the Silk Road were — for lack of a better word — rampant in the Chinese imperial court. Ministers from the Han dynasty (260 BC-220 AD) were required to aromatize their robes with incense made from cinnamon, clove, cassia, and star anise before meeting with the Emperor.
The most iconic celebrity fan of xiāng would be the original Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), whose lifeline traveled from teenage concubine to mastermind behind the glory and downfall of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911). Just on that unsolicited educational note. Among her favorites were jasmine, rose, orange blossom, and honeysuckle, which she applied both on her body and in her tea.
Girls (and Boys) Just Want to Have Xiāng
While Cixi’s xiāng-infused tea party in the Qing dynasty sounds all fine and dandy, cool kids hamming it up in the Tang (618-907) and Song (907-1279) dynasties enjoyed something fancier.
It was commonplace for people to place incense burners in their houses and by their bedsides. Women would douse themselves in nectars distilled from lily, lotus, and chrysanthemum, as depicted throughout classic Chinese literature and art. Naturally, social gatherings, especially among the high society, would include sniffing and appreciating special incenses.
These peers called it dòuxiāng (鬥香| “incense battle” in Chinese) as they rejoiced in incense making, spice identification, and poetry or art creation based on lauding that wonderful xiāng.
The art of smoking it up, anyone?
The Five Commandments of an Incense Master
Decades after Mao’s decree that thou shalt not smell, Chinese people are now embracing, if not rushing to, perfumes – the Western kind, to be precise. Whatever happened to the traditional Chinese xiāng, then? What can people today distill from this ancient sorcery?
Temper tracked down Qianli Liang, a descendant from the Feng incense-crafting family of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and interviewed him to uncover the secrets of xiāng.
Liang left school at 18 to devote himself to the study of xiāng, honing his craft and developing his family recipes into a school of science, art, and philosophy. With mathematical precision and heroic artistry like his name qiānlǐ (千里| “a thousand miles” in Chinese) indicates, he distilled below five commandments:
1. Don’t Just Label Any Burning Stick as Incense
Pursue the essence rather than the superficiality of xiāng.
“Let’s imagine a sphere where the core is the physicality and all the points extending out from the core and occupying its surrounding space are the functionality derived from the physicality. One can attempt to get a glimpse of the essence through investigating its derivatives.
It is important to approach and hopefully reach the essence so that we can stay grounded in our judgments and decisions. I always remind people to not just label any burning stick as an incense, and this reminder stems from my pursuit for essence.”
2. Mixing and Matching Aren’t the Same as Creating
When creating a xiāng recipe, attempt to generate a new scent through chemistry among ingredients.
“Perfumes on the market these days don’t follow this at all; their complex recipes merely put together all scents and nothing new comes out of the mixture. Not only do they not provide pleasure, but they lead to confusion because the sniffer’s brain would be frantically analyzing what exactly the ever-changing scent is.
To convey this idea musically, my xiāng is akin to an overtone, whereas others’ xiāng is akin to cacophonies.”
3. A Fragrance Is Best When It’s Not Bothersome
The elegance and nobility of xiāng depend on its unobtrusive nature. Xiāng is always contained within an environment, quietly and naturally unleashing its charm.
“When burning incense, the scent isn’t always uniformly noticeable. It’s more likely to fluctuate among twirling around, hiding away, and then catching you by surprise. Xiāng gives the nose and brain ample space for relaxation. It modifies itself based on the sniffer’s physical and mental conditions.
Interestingly, artificial perfumes always have a jarring presence in their surrounding space. I don’t consider these perfumes xiāng because they are bothersome.”
4. Xiāng Connects Human to Nature
Many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries use only oils in their fragrance recipes. However, Chinese xiāng insists on using relatively whole and original ingredients.
“For example, after oil extraction from sandalwood, there will be three yields: the wood residue, the water-soluble liquid, and the fat-soluble oil. We tend to consider all three together as a whole rather than segregating them and labeling any one of them as sandalwood ….
This reflects our respect for nature … not in a way that glorifies barbarism but in a way that analyses the rhythm of nature to unveil the connection between nature and humans.”
5. Xiāng Can Be Used to Reach Enlightenment
Buddhism holds that the heart is the only thing that’s everlasting. Once you find your heart, you’ll start to navigate the world with more lightness and ease.
“If I told you to go find your heart, you’d likely be overwhelmed. But if I teach you to make incense – through which you may get your own insights – and then pass on to you Buddhist wisdom, you’re more likely to be enlightened.
Basic enlightenment is analogous to blowing on the broth in a bowl of porridge to reveal the rice beneath. Once the blowing stops, the rice gets submerged again. The renewed unagitated state is with the knowledge of the rice beneath and can hence offer a sense of clarity and harmony. Advanced enlightenment can be attained if one learns how to blow on the broth when needed.”
Xiāng may be the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory. It may be the wasteful, wanton, Western sin. Nevertheless, none of these sensational labels captures one-tenth of what it’s capable of. Hold your breath …
Das high-way to nirvana may very well travel through xiāng.
You ready to sniff?