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In Session: Making Sense of the Scent: Smells in Premodern China and India
2: Fragrant Protection: Smell and Medicine in Tang China
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
SUNY, Buffalo, United States
The flourishing of the Silk Road in the Middle Period fostered the flow of a wide variety of aromatics (camphor, frankincense, saffron, etc.) from Persia, India, and the Malay Peninsula into China that profoundly altered Chinese culture. This paper focuses on the key role these fragrant substances played in transforming Chinese medical culture during the Tang. At the theoretical level, a marked change the paper identifies is that from the eighth century, medical writers in China started to conceptualize smell, alongside with the well-established categories of color and taste, as a new property of medicines that was tied to their healing power, indicating a heightened awareness of olfactory experience at the time. At the level of practice, materia medica texts and formula books began to conceive of these foreign aromatics as powerful antidotes that, once ingested or carried, could dispel effluvia and counter bodily toxins. The rise of the popularity of aromatics during this period coincided with the Tang empire's effort to extend its influence to the far south, where the environment was perceived as mysterious and dangerous, teeming with sinister demons and harmful miasma. Aromatics, and the strong smells emitted by them, offered a protection for the intrepid travelers and banished officials. In the end, by analyzing the medical discussion and use of aromatics during the Tang, this paper seeks to illustrate how olfactory experience fostered the making of new medical knowledge and how that knowledge was palpably expressed at the far end of the empire.