Figure 1. ‘Oil painting of a man smoking an opium pipe’ (Science Museum, London). This painting of a man smoking an opium pipe used to hang in the opium den run by Ah Sing (d. 1890), in New Court, Victoria Street, London. Ah Sing’s opium den was the model for the one described in Charles Dickens’ unfinished final story 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. It was probably the most famous of the dens in Victorian London and Dickens was just one of a number of well known individuals who visited it – presumably for research purposes. Maker: Unknown maker Place made: Europe.
China through the European nose
15th January 2024
by Xuelei Huang and Gemma McLean-Carr
Created at:
15th January 2024
Creator:
Xuelei Huang and Gemma McLean-Carr
Citation:
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Figure 1. ‘Oil painting of a man smoking an opium pipe’ (Science Museum, London). This painting of a man smoking an opium pipe used to hang in the opium den run by Ah Sing (d. 1890), in New Court, Victoria Street, London. Ah Sing’s opium den was the model for the one described in Charles Dickens’ unfinished final story 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. It was probably the most famous of the dens in Victorian London and Dickens was just one of a number of well known individuals who visited it – presumably for research purposes. Maker: Unknown maker Place made: Europe.
Places

How did China smell to European travellers in the past? T. S. Eliot argues that ‘the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it’ because feeling ‘truly’ is the first condition of thinking ‘rightly’ (Eliot, 1941: 30). Feeling and thinking are undeniably intertwined, and how China smelled was also interlinked to the changing Western images of the country over centuries. China was generally admired during the times of Marco Polo (1254–1324), sixteenth-century Portuguese and Spanish adventurers, seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries, and Enlightenment philosophers. However, from the late eighteenth century onward, during the golden age of Western colonialism and imperialism, European popular imaginations gradually formed a negative image of China. These shifting attitudes and sensibilities significantly influenced how China was perceived and smelled. While Spanish priest Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza described in his 1585 book that the Chinese, both in their streets and their houses, were marvellously clean (Mendoza, 1854: 27), the Englishman George Wingrove Cooke (1814–1865) quoted a contemporary French Jesuit anecdotally, who remarked: ‘Alas! madam, in China there is but one scent, and that is not a perfume.’ (Cooke, 1859: 223) Does a country carry distinctive smells? It might be challenging to scientifically prove that; yet it is a common trope in travel literature that contributes to the stereotyping or ‘othering’ of a particular country, its people, and its environments. Under the noses of European travel writers of the nineteenth century, China had her own peculiar smells. There was a sardonic statement circulating among foreigners, claiming that ‘the chief industry of China is the manufacture of smells’ (Fitkin, 1922: 1).

Smells

The most frequently complaint-of stenches ‘manufactured’ by China were offensive atmospheric odours stemming from poorly-paved streets and malfunctioning sewers, two primary targets in modern sanitation campaigns (Huang, 2023: 66–70). However, these were hardly exclusive to China, as medieval European cities and towns were similarly miasmic and industrializing Europe of the nineteenth century also had its share of foul odours. Another high-profile malodour was allegedly the body odour of the Chinese, attributed to a lack of regular baths and hygienic products, and dietary and clothing habits. However, Caucasians were not deemed agreeable to the Chinese nose either, a deeply rooted stereotype documented even in the same corpus of travel writing (Huang, 2023: 70–74). So, what were the characteristic stenches manufactured in China?

Clarke Abel (1780–1826), a British surgeon and naturalist who served as the chief medical officer on Lord Amherst’s embassy to China in 1816–1817, was one of the first nineteenth-century travellers to meticulously document Chinese smells. While strolling along the long, dirty streets near the capital Beijing (Peking), Abel noticed a scene that ‘gave so peculiar a character to the streets’: fur cloaks with long sleeves hanging before the doors, possessing what he perceived as ‘the true Chinese smell’ (Abel, 1818, 115–116). He did not provide an explanation for why he considered this odour to be truly Chinese. In fact, most Han Chinese people would strongly disagree with his view, regarding such a smell ‘barbaric’ instead, as their own preferred winter dresses were made of odourless cotton and silk. This story serves as an illustration of cross-cultural misperceptions that feed into the formation of olfactory stereotypes.

Figure 1. ‘Oil painting of a man smoking an opium pipe’ (Science Museum, London). This painting of a man smoking an opium pipe used to hang in the opium den run by Ah Sing (d. 1890), in New Court, Victoria Street, London. Ah Sing’s opium den was the model for the one described in Charles Dickens’ unfinished final story 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. It was probably the most famous of the dens in Victorian London and Dickens was just one of a number of well known individuals who visited it – presumably for research purposes. Maker: Unknown maker Place made: Europe.

Amongst all the stereotypical Chinese odours, the smell of opium might be most complex, intertwined with rich political and moral undertones. Virtually a sensorial symbol of China in the nineteenth century, opium smelled evil and represented China’s illness, moral degeneration, and shame. British missionary Edwin Dukes remarked on the pervasiveness of opium in Chinese inns, calling it ‘a great nuisance…for the smell of the fumes is very vile and sickening’ (Dukes, 1885: 164; emphasis added). When discussing hiring chair-bearers, he wrote, ‘one is obliged to look at them—and shall I say, smell them?—to calculate whether they shek-in (eat smoke)’ (ibid.: 165). The nose was engaged in making both practical and moral judgements simultaneously. However, the moral judgement was not necessarily directed solely at the Chinese. In fact, there was no shortage of criticism from home and some church leaders in England even labelled the opium trade a ‘national sin’ (Zheng, 2005: 94–95). Therefore, the perception of the fumes of opium as baneful, wicked, and abominable might have resulted from the coordination of feeling and thinking. Opium does not inherently have a sickly smell; in fact, during its heyday when opium was a symbol of taste relished by the privileged classes in China, it smelled fragrant, as illustrated in a poem written by the future emperor Daoguang 道光 (1782–1850) in the early nineteenth century (quoted in Zheng, 2005: 57):

Sharpen wood into a hollow pipe,
Give it a copper head and tail,
Stuff the eye with bamboo shavings,
Watch the cloud ascend from nostril.
Inhale and exhale, fragrance rises,
Ambience deepens and thickens
When it is stagnant, it is really as if
Mountains and clouds emerge in distant sea.

Extracted from the poppy plant Papaver somniferum, the polarized olfactory perception of opium demonstrates that the sense of smell is more ambivalent than commonly assumed, begging for carefully contextualized readings and interpretations. Smelling China through the European nose was fraught with stereotypes and ingrained assumptions of the ‘backwardness’ of the ‘East’ in Western imagination.

Dried fish, with a distinctively unpleasant odour to the average foreign palate, represented another unique Chinese smell. The clichéd ‘spoiled, stinking fish’ even found its place in Kant’s work as an example of the eating habits of Asian people (Kant, 1907: 379). Clarke Abel, during his 1810s journey in China, observed that the lower class of Chinese consumed ‘rice or millet, seasoned with a preparation of putrid fish that sent forth a stench quite intolerable to European organs’ (Abel, 1818: 231–232). Subsequently, this pungent smell permeated the pages of travel literature. The British surgeon Frederick Treves (1853–1923) likened dried fish shops in Guangzhou to ‘depots for discarded museum specimens’ and the stench emanating from them was ‘beyond words’ (Treves, 1904: 275). An influential travel handbook introduced the fishing port of Ningbo with a cautionary note about ‘the pervasive odor of drying cuttle-fish’ that wafted with ‘nearly every breeze that blows over the town’ each spring (Crow, 1921: 140). The odour of Chinese fishermen’s squid-drying fields in California even triggered a lengthy legal dispute in the 1890s regarding the residency rights of the Chinese in Monterey. Intertwined with existing discourses of racial difference (i.e. the notion that Chinese were inherently repugnant), subjectively perceived offensive smells became the legitimate accused parties in the institutionalized exercise of power (Chiang, 2004).

However, accounts recounting how Chinese places smelled to the European nose were not wholly negative; for many European travellers, natural aromas from flowers surpassed less pleasant odours, and the Chinese garden became a contrast to the odourous streets frequently commented upon by travellers. ‘The Chinese are fond of flowers,’ as observed by the English missionary Mary Bryson. Sweet floral scents—what she referred to as ‘Nature’s incense’—seemed ‘for a time almost to overpower the vile odours which rise from the crowded streets of every Chinese city’ (Bryson, 1900: 49–50). The seasonal cycle of Chinese flowers and their fragrances were documented at great length in the writings of Alicia Little (1845–1926, aka Mrs Archibald Little):

Among wild flowers the narcissus and the banksia bloom in March and April, when the rocky hills become red with azaleas for hundreds of miles, wisteria hanging there in festoons. In April also beans are in flower, and these with the yellow blossoms of the oil-plant make it indeed a fragrant month. In May the country air is sweet with wild honeysuckle and dog-rose. In June follows the luscious gardenia, sold in the streets for one cash a blossom (a tenth of a penny), and worn at this season by every woman, rich and poor alike, in her hair. In July among the mountain glades large white lilies are to be found, with a rich fragrance, but in this as in some other instances, it is a private and local breath, not a pervading odour such as those specially enumerated. In September and October, however, and even in August for some early flowering varieties, the delightful Olea fragrans and Kuei-hua scents the air in city and country alike, not to speak of the favourite jasmine, white and yellow. November and most of December are practically scentless in North China, but in mild seasons at the end of December, and generally in the early part of January, the sweet Lah mei, or waxen almond (cheimonanthus fragrans) blooms before its leaves appear; and it is scarce over before the delicious white and pink double almond, richly fragrant, breathes out the old year for the Chinese, this generally occurring in February. (Little, 1905: 34–35; emphasis added)

One of the most sweet-smelling flowers mentioned by Little is the gardenia. Native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Madagascar, and Pacific islands, there are five species in China. The flowers are often nocturnal and are usually ‘strongly sweetly fragrant’ with a distinctive odour (Chen and Taylor). This overpowering scent was found in an Englishman’s garden in Shanghai when the renowned botanist Robert Fortune (1812–1880) paid a visit to this newly opened treaty port in 1848. Fortune wrote that this species, noted as the ‘new Gardenia (G. Fortuniana)’, had been introduced by the Horticultural Society to England in 1845 and was now common in English gardens. In the Shanghai garden, the bushes were ‘covered with fine double white flowers, as large as a camellia, and highly fragrant’ (Fortune, 1852: 17). The heavy, delicious aroma of the gardenia also delighted the British adventurer Isabella Bird-Bishop (1831–1904) as she travelled across the Yangtze valley in China. ‘Strings of gardenia blossoms hang up at that season in all houses, every coolie sticks them into his hair, and even the beggars find a place for them among their rags’, as she observed (Bird-Bishop, 1900: 235–236).

In the same garden in Shanghai, Robert Fortune also discovered (or ‘sniffed out’) large quantities of the ‘Olea fragrans, the Qui Wha’ planted in different parts of the garden. In autumn, when they are in bloom, the air is ‘perfumed with the most delicious fragrance’ (Fortune, 1852: 17). The perfume is so intense that ‘one tree is enough to scent a whole garden’ (ibid.: 331). Featured in Alicia Little’s passage as well, Olea fragrans is more commonly known as Osmanthus (Guihua 桂花 or Muxi 木樨 in Chinese). Out of a total of 30 species, 23 are indigenous to China. As a well-known spice plant, the flowers are fragrant in all species (‘5. OSMANTHUS Loureiro’).

Alicia Little also mentioned the sweet Chimonanthus praecox (Lamei 臘梅) and the delicious Armeniaca mume (Meihua 梅花, or plum blossom; referred to as almond by Little). Blooming in winter or very early spring, they hold particular cultural significance to the Chinese, as their delicate scents enhance the festive ambience of the Lunar New Year. Apart from these sweet-smelling flowers, foreigners exploring the ‘Flowery Land’ also marvelled at the diverse scents emitted by magnolias, orchids, lotus flowers, and peonies. Some other travellers also archived specific smells associated with particular Chinese practices and customs.

Figure 2. ‘Flowering tree by main entrance, Chaotung (University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China), ca. 1930s

Places

A common source of the reputed distinctive Chinese smell was the bustling streets of the densely populated cities and towns. During an expedition along the east coast of China, Charles A. Gordon found himself overwhelmed by the odours that assailed his nostrils on the crowded streets of Guangdong (Canton): they were ‘not only different in nature from all other stenches’, but also ‘no less extraordinary by reason of their variety—all different from each other, and from all others; they were, in fact, purely and thoroughly Chinese’ (Gordon, 1863: 70; emphasis added).

Figure 3. ‘A street in雙門底 (Shuang men di or Cheung Mun Tai Street), Canton (Guangzhou)’, showing shops and shop signs c.1870 (Photograph by A. Chan (Ya Zhen))

The renowned Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837–1921) was elaborate on the composition of the Chinese smell in his portrayal of the business quarter of Fuzhou (Foochow), a city on the southeastern coast of China:

The atmosphere also is oppressed with odours, in their variety and sublimated offensiveness peculiarly Chinese; the unsavoury outcome of extremely defective drainage, which blends its exhalations with the fumes of charcoal, garlic, and oil; whiffs of opium and tobacco being mingled therewith by way of an occasional change (Thomson, 1876: 100; emphasis added).

While this blend of odours may have shocked the foreigner’s ‘delicate sensibility’ (ibid), in Shanghai's native city, where quaint little shops lined the narrow passages, the greasy pavement exhaled ‘the rich, close, and altogether peculiar odour so familiar to all old residents in the Celestial Empire' (Liddell, 1909: 38). A decade later, as ‘the new order of things’ began to emerge in the new republic of China, the streets still retained ‘the grime and the smells’, all ‘typical of Old China’ (Roe, 1920: 176). The true smell of China, as it was, may have endured beyond the vicissitudes of historical change, leaving a lasting impression in the memories of travellers. By emphasizing their unique sensory experience of the true Chinese smell, these writers essentialized China, positioning it as the diametrical opposite of ‘us’, and mythologizing it beyond reach.

China was increasingly seen, heard, and smelt in European public knowledge throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The presence of Chinatowns within Europe, particularly the infamous Limehouse in London, became the face of China as Westerners strove to gain a whiff of the ‘East’ at home. Sensationalised reporting of Chinese quarters, alongside the fictional novels of Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke, transformed these spaces into replicas of China within Europe rather than diasporic communities primarily formed by sojourners. These spaces were central to the broader fearmongering of China, manipulating assumptions of Chinese olfactory practices to exaggerate the threat posed by the ‘East’. Accounts of Chinatowns centred smell as a way of dictating the ‘otherness’ of these spaces:

The world traveller can always make his way to the Chinese quarter of any city if given the slightest indication of its whereabouts. He is guided by the languid, vague smell of Asia – acrid, pervasive, although vague – which seems to be mingled of vegetation growing too rankly, of opium, and of the dead fumes of incense burned to long-since dead gods. Wherever in the world the Chinese gather there is that same languid smell, whether it be in a city of China… or London, for everywhere he goes the Chinaman smokes opium, burns joss sticks and eats what hesitates between food and garbage. (South China Morning Post, 1910: 11).

The Chinese quarter of London disrupted the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; the East transplanted into the heart of Western Civilisation. Smell is repeatedly used within accounts of Limehouse to act upon the ingrained stereotyping and ‘othering’ of both China and the Chinese presence in Europe. Writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1895, J. Platt attempts to contextualise the aromas of Limehouse and indicates that the very inability to distinguish smells is a part of the Chinese threat, ‘The atmosphere of the Chinese shop is indescribable. The smell of tobacco I like, and the smell of opium I like, and the smell of joss-sticks I like, but there are others such as the smell of Chinese cooking.’ (Platt, 1895: 290). The combination of heady smells described by Platt presents an excessive olfactory bombardment which overwhelms visitors to the docks. This narrative is frequently repeated by travellers as Limehouse emits ‘a strong mixed odour of cooking and tobacco-smoke, mingled with the shrieks of a native orchestra’ (Ward, 1897: 363)

Through odorous descriptions, Limehouse was Chinese in the public imagination, a place of olfactory bombardment upon the Western palette and unable to be navigated without aid. This narrative was manipulated by travel agent Thomas Cook, who organised tours of Limehouse so that ordinary Londoners could sniff China firsthand. Despite being situated in London, Limehouse remained a wholly foreign space, ‘a locality of shady opium dens and resorts of rowdy inebriety’ (Cook, 1937: 50), which was monopolised by local businesses who fed off the intrigue of those unlikely to experience China themselves.

Figure 4. ‘Etchings of Old London: Limehouse’. British Library (By Ernest George. London: The Fine Art Society, 1884)

Practices

One practice which held a ‘peculiarly obnoxious’ smell ‘without which no Chinese city is complete’, derived from the ‘primitive methods’ of manure collection (Roe, 1920: 12). Utilizing human excrement to fertilize soil was a common practice in the Chinese agricultural tradition, giving rise to a balanced rural-urban ecosystem, an ever-flowing cycle of exchange between agricultural products and human waste (Yu, 2010: 51–60). Despite his admiration for the Chinese way of cultivating the soil with extreme care and attention to details, the sinologist James Dyer Ball (1847–1919) commented on the collection of night-soil in the cities and even in every little hamlet, ‘to the disgust of the olfactory nerves of those unaccustomed to such an ancient mode’ (Dyer Ball, 1906: 22). Records of stenches ‘manufactured’ in relation to this practice are innumerable in Western travel literature. A street scene in 1880s Hangzhou, as observed by the English missionary Arthur Evans Moule (1836–1918), was a symphony of exotic sound and smell: the shouts of the scavengers, carrying the sewage of the city ‘in open buckets’ to their country boats, were accompanied by ‘the multiform and most evil odours’ (Moule, 1891: 54–55). Amid the bustling crowd of a Canton street, some men trotted along ‘bearing most objectionable and unfragrant uncovered buckets, inclining foreigners to believe that Chinamen were created without the sense of smell’ (Gordon Cumming, 1888: 32–33).

Alongside the practice of manure collection, another exceedingly ‘outlandish’ aspect amongst the array of Chinese stenches was connected to a Chinese burial custom, according to which coffins had to be rested in the house until the most propitious day of interment arrived. The English missionary Samuel Pollard (1864–1915) provided a vivid account of how this primarily Han Chinese burial practice entailed ‘revolting unsanitariness and almost nameless horrors’:

What can be more horrible and offensive than to walk into the front room of some Chinese friend’s house and to be offered a seat near an awkward-looking mound right in the centre of the room. As the cup of tea is handed to you and you are sipping it and inquiring after the welfare of the members of the household, you are conscious of a disagreeable smell which tends to get on one’s nerves and make one feel ill. (Pollard, 1921: 127; emphasis added)

Constance Gordon Cumming’s sensitive nose detected an odour of a similar nature. During her travels to Beijing, she encountered the funeral procession of a man who had been dead for about two months. Since the heavy wooden coffin had not been properly sealed, she was ‘nearly poisoned for half an hour afterwards by the appalling stench which floated along the track in his wake’ (Gordon Cumming, 1888: 369). This Chinese practice is indeed notably stench-inducing, but the scent of death is universal. John Barrow (1764–1848), a member of Lord Macartney’s embassy to China (1792–1794), noted that the Chinese bury their dead at a proper distance from the dwellings of the living, whereas the Europeans ‘not only allow the interment of dead bodies in the midst of their populous cities, but have thrust them also into places of public worship, where crowded congregations are constantly exposed to the nauseous effluvia, and perhaps infection, arising from putrid carcases’ (Barrow, 1805: 337; emphasis added).

There were also several Chinese practices associated with pleasant aromas. To flavour tea with fragrant flowers is a common Chinese olfactory practice. The botanist Robert Fortune noted that Osmanthus flowers were a source of great profit. Dried petals are used for ‘mixing with the finer kind of tea, in order to give it an agreeable perfume’ (Fortune, 1852: 332–333). Jasmine is another favourite scent mixed with tea. Native to India, Jasminum sambac is widely cultivated in South China for its fragrant flowers, which are used in tea flavouring and in perfumes (‘41. Jasminum sambac’). When visiting nurseries in Tianjin, accompanied by Fortune, British army medical officer Charles Alexander Gordon (1821–1899) recognized the Jasminum sambac and the Olea fragrans, ‘two of the plants whose flower buds are employed to give their peculiar odour to certain kinds of scented tea’ (Gordon, 1863: 186).

The European nose favoured the use of flowers to perfume tea, but this practice also extended to decorating body and space. As observed by Charles A. Gordon, Osmanthus and jasmine flowers were also used to adorn ladies’ hair and to scent the apartments of the wealthy during winter, with ‘the flower buds being for this purpose collected in considerable numbers, and placed in an open saucer upon the table’ (Gordon, 1863: 186). Mary Bryson noted that for a Chinese florist, in early spring, ‘he has the fragrant flowers of the la-mei and the delicate pink blossoms of the almond’, accompanied by the ‘fragrant narcissus’ to adorn Chinese homes (Bryson, 1900: 49–50). James Dyer Ball introduced the Chinese practice of displaying aromatic fruit blossoms in his encyclopaedia, a neglected aspect of flower culture in the West:

The Chinese cut off the branches of fruit-trees as they burst into bud, and the delicate tints of the peach, the white flowers of the plum, and the tender blossoms of the almond, are all eagerly sought for, to decorate their homes at that festive season of the year. (Dyer Ball, 1906: 285)

Feelings and Noses

Smells are simultaneously personal and communal; China was smelled by a variety of European noses, each of whom interpreted how China smelled in a unique way. Some travellers used smell to outline the fundamental incompatibility of East and West and establish China as backward and inferior. Writer William Somerset Maugham, in his travel book recounting his experience in China, embodies this narrative in his distinction between the ‘despotic East’ and ‘free’ West:

When I lay in my bed I asked myself why in the despotic East there should be between men and equality so much greater than in the free and demo West, and was forced to the conclusion that the explanation must be sought in the cess-pool. For in the West we are divided from our fellows by our sense of smell….Now, the Chinese live all their lives in the proximity of very nasty smells. They do not notice them. Their nostrils are blunted to the odours that assail the Europeans. (Maugham, 1922: 98)

Maugham’s attack on China’s smell continues, merging with other senses to form a bombardment upon the ‘civilised’ state of European sense reception: ‘And then combining with the irksome throng and the din that exhausts your ears is a stench which time and experience enable you to distinguish into a thousand separate stenches. Your nostrils grow cunning. Foul odours beat upon your harassed nerves like the sound of uncouth instruments playing a horrible symphony’ (Maugham, 1922: 157). Maugham’s work uses smell to solidify the rigid boundaries between Europe and the ‘other’ but also entangles other offensive senses to ensure his descriptions (and by extension China) are a source of disgust to the European public.

Fictional writers also represented a unique set of ‘noses’ that narrated how China smelled to a European audience. Their stories were unique insofar as their audiences surpassed the confines of Europe and held international reach by feeding public fascination with the East and all things ‘oriental’. The success of these novels lies in the exaggeration of Chinese otherness and their reliance on vivid, odorous descriptions which encouraged an obsession with the East. The most infamous collection of these novels is Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series which centres around Limehouse and Chinese mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu. Rohmer’s novels were continuously embellished with odorous descriptions ‘impregnated with Eastern devilry' (Rohmer, 1995: 185), both within and beyond the Chinese border. For example, protagonists Petrie and Nayland Smith are able to identify the location of their kidnapping through odour alone despite never setting foot in China, ‘A fancy possessed me, in these the first moments of my restoration to the world of realities, that I had been smuggled into China …The air was hot, steamy, and loaded with a smell as of rotting vegetation’ (Rohmer, 1995: 185). This becomes a common trope of the novels as the stench of China becomes synonymous with imminent peril: 

A faint perfume hung in the air about me; I do not mean that of any essence or of any incense, but rather the smell which is suffused by Oriental furniture, by Oriental draperies; the indefinable but unmistakable perfume of the East. Thus, London has a distinct smell of its own, and so has Paris, whilst the difference between Marseilles and Suez, for instance, is even more marked. (Rohmer, 1995: 345)

The stench of China also seeped into storylines with little direct correlation to China, as demonstrated in Agatha Christie’s The Big Four: ‘bales and casks and which exhaled a pungent odour, as of Eastern spices. I felt wrapped all round with the atmosphere of the East, tortuous, cunning, sinister’ (Christie, 1994: 136). These authors did not experience China firsthand before constructing their novels. However, this was a concern neither for the writers nor their audience, who believed these narratives to be an authentic reflection of China and its stench; the success of their work was instead bolstered by the racial stereotyping and exaggeration of Western fetishism towards Asia and its inhabitants.

Apart from these ‘noses’ assailed by Chinese stenches, there were also European ‘noses’ which appreciated Chinese scents. Marco Polo’s nose is such a case in point. He documented the exquisite scent of musk in his travelogue on several occasions. He detailed the features of musk deer and the methods of obtaining the aromatic substance in the province of Tangut, where ‘the finest and most valuable musk is procured’ (Polo, 1908: 137). In Thebeth (Tibet), as he noted, the animals that produce the musk abounded, ‘and such is the quantity, that the scent of it is diffused over the whole country’. Throughout every part of this region, ‘the odour generally prevails’ (ibid.: 238). Six centuries later, the same aroma still permeated the accounts of Victorian travellers who encountered the valuable aromatic. According to Isabella Bird-Bishop, Kuan Hsien (Guanxian) was an unattractive town in Sichuan Province, except for its strategic location, which made it a hub for trade with Northern Tibet. Musk was one of the most profitable Tibetan exports traded in this town for Chinese tea, silk and cotton. From there, it was sold or smuggled to neighbouring cities such as Chongqing and Chengdu. ‘Chengtu reeks with its intensely pungent odour’, as she wrote (Bird-Bishop, 1900: 72).

While a significant amount of knowledge about the aromas and flavours of tea had been circulating in Europe, the travellers’ noses also offered fresh insight into the marvellous scent bestowed by nature. In the heart of a five-gorged valley, as French poet Paul Claudel’s murmuring narrative unfolds, he suddenly found himself in a wood ‘like that which on Parnassus served for the assembly of the Muses!’ Above him, tea plants lifted their shoots and foliage. ‘A delicate perfume, which seems to survive rather than emanate, flatters the nostril while recreating the spirit. And in a hollow I discover the spring!’ (Claudel, 1914: 151)

Does gender play a role in differing smell perceptions of China? While more research is required on this topic, some female travellers did offer their positive olfactory experience of China. For example, Constance Gordon Cumming documented her joyful leisurely strolls along the city walls of Ningbo, which were thickly covered with ‘fragrant jessamine and wild honeysuckle’ (1888: 305). When Mary Bryson paid an impromptu visit to the Orphan Island in Poyang Lake, where a stately temple was located, her nose was delighted by the smellscape of the island, which was ‘like a garden, the grey old rocks being covered with lovely climbing plants, while the fragrance of the Chinese jessamine scented the air’ (Bryson, 1900: 138).

So, were/are there true Chinese smells? There might be one lingering in each traveller’s memories, but in reality, there is certainly an indefinite array of smells existing in any given country. Many above-mentioned stenches and fragrances identified by Victorian travellers or imagined by European writers can be conceived as ‘Chinese’ since they are associated with native species, climate, habits and customs in China. However, once essentialized and stereotyped, they became an instrument of othering within the particular socio-historical contexts. In this sense, a decolonization of the nose might be the first condition of ‘feeling truly’.

Creator:
Xuelei Huang and Gemma McLean-Carr
Citation:
Xuelei Huang and Gemma McLean-Carr, “China through the European nose,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed June 15, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/37.
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