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In Session: Making Sense of the Scent: Smells in Premodern China and India
1: The Odor of the Occult in Early Medieval Chinese Tales
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
University of California, Santa Barbara, United States
In ancient and medieval China, death was a putrid olfactory affair. Bodily decomposition released foul fumes that, according to one traditional tale, could kill a person on the spot. Around the third and fourth centuries, however, new stories started to circulate about corpses remaining supple in their underground tombs and emitting strange fragrances (yixiang 異香). These smells were interpreted as signs verifying the sanctified character of the tomb occupant. This paper will explore the variety of strange smells noted in early medieval literary accounts and analyze what knowledge the domain of smell was thought to reveal vis-à-vis the other senses.
Stories of unnatural fragrances started to appear with regularity in texts classified as anomalous tales (zhiguai 志怪) and in the early hagiographies of Daoist immortals and Buddhist monastics. In addition to a postmortem odor of sanctity, odd smells would also accompany miraculous events, lingering and verifying the location as a site of anomalous activity. In such scenarios, smell was understood as having a privileged access to a domain of knowledge that was largely inaccessible to other senses. This knowledge of the nose was predicated on belief in an unseen or occult realm (ming 冥) that functioned as the informal abode of spirits and ghosts, of immortals and buddhas, and of the dead. In many instances, this otherworldly realm remained opaque to vision or hearing, but could be penetrated by olfaction. I will end with a few observations about smell as a boundary crossing sense.