Perfume traditions in China.

Perfume traditions in China.

Today, the perfume market in Asia is dominated by high end fragrance houses from the US and Europe, where expensive perfumes are considered a status symbol. But in the past, many classic fragrances were developed and worn in the East.

During the Cultural Revolution in China, Maoist doctrine declared wearing perfume to be decadent and it was actually illegal at one point. At a result, the traditional Chinese perfume industry was pretty much ended after 1967.

Prior to this, however, there was a strong tradition of fragrance in daily life in China. Central to Chinese fragrance was the Taoist belief that the extraction of a plant's fragrance liberated the soul of the plant itself. The transformation of solid incense into scented vapors mirrored the transmutation of the physical state into a spiritual level or Tao. As a result, incense was equally popular as a means of enjoying fragrance as much as perfumes and other extractions.

There was little distinction between incense and perfume. The culture of the time believed that every perfume was a medicine and that a deep connection existed between an aroma and the status of the mind and body. The word "Heang" was used to describe a perfume, incense or fragrance. "Heang" has 6 classifications according to the mood that it creates: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble.


Incense’s popularity was much stronger in the past than at present. It was very common for people, especially those from noble families, to place incense burners in their houses and even near their beds. Before leaving the house, the noblemen would have their clothes infused with incense so that they could enjoy the sweet smell all day long.

According to many classic Chinese books, poems, paintings and antiques, fashion-conscious women would wear the nectars distilled from many kinds of flowers such as lily, lotus and chrysanthemum. Every morning they would apply a few drops of the nectars, which would keep them smelling good the whole day.

One historical figure who was well known for her love of fragrance was the Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled at the end of Imperial China.

Empress Cixi, was known as the“Dragon Empress” or “She-Dragon” and went from being a young teenage concubine to ruling single-handedly in her own right.  Cixi was reportedly extra, extra keen on scented products, and she used oils like jasmine, rose, orange blossom, or honeysuckle as actual fragrance on her body, in addition to putting them in her tea.

A portrait of Empress Chixi.

It was also common for high-ranking families to invite friends over to appreciate some special kinds of incenses. This kind of party was just as popular as the karaoke parties of today.

In contemporary China, the fragrance market is generally dominated by Western companies, however one holdover from traditional fragrances is "chen xiang" as agarwood or oud is called.  However, agarwood is not typically purchased for its fragrant qualities, but rather the prestige of buying such an expensive consumable.  As there is less differentiation between the notion of perfume versus incense, oud as a solid compound meant to be burned is often described as perfume. 

As high quality agarwood can be as expensive by weight as gold, it is seen as the ultimate contemporary luxury - the fragrance is fleeting and it is seen as literally "watching one's money go up in smoke".


An example of Chen Xiang perfume.

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