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Perfumed Objects From Around The World: Part 1, China
Dec 04, 2017

When talking about perfuming oneself or ways of scenting a space, China might not be among the top five countries coming to one's mind. On the contrary, many (including myself) might have seen China as a perfume-phobic country. It is true that when under a strict communist regime decades ago, luxury scented goods simply carried a bit too much of a bourgeoisie vibe and your average citizen of China would not be keen on obtaining such Western 'sins'. However, these days it's easy to find your beloved Chanel or Dior at a high end department store. What’s more is that many local and heritage brands are coming out of hibernation, and this opened my eyes to how beautifully scented the ancient Chinese may have been by using various perfumed objects. Turns out the modern nostalgic demand is bringing some traditional Chinese scented objects back on the market, gaining more and more popularity these days:

Scented bags or xiangbao


The use of scented bags by the Chinese can be traced back to around 3,000 years BC, the Warring States Period, and many poems from history sang their praises and used various poetic names for what is commonly known today as xiangbao ( which literally means fragrant bag). Typically made of silk and adorned with hand-sew patterns with colorful threads, xiangbao were said to contain dried, crushed highly aromatic herbs inside. Through out the history, the reasons for using xiangbao varied from the initial purpose of scenting the body, repelling insects and warding off evil spirits, to function as a love token between young lovers or as gifts for children. Even though both men and women could enjoy xiangbao equally (and during the Song Dynasty, officials who were above a certain rank had xiangbao with their ceremonial court clothes and they were most likely to be all male), somehow it gradually became a thing reserved for women and children, and eventually wearing it became obsolete in modern life, unless you were dressing up in a period specific costume.


Story of the Western Wing, illustration of the exchange of scented bags

Even though the xiangbao is nowhere as popular as it was in the past, many traditional Chinese cosmetic brands still sell it, or have introduced it back to our lives. Popular fragrance notes you can find here are: osmanthus, sandalwood, wormwood, rose and lavender. Of course, there are more supporting herbs added than just the main accord that is advertised. I have to say, I’m utterly impressed by the creamy sandalwood xiangbao I got my hands on recently. I didn't know what to expect and was happily surprised by something that seemed to be a cross between Middle Eastern sandalwood oil and Jo Malone’s Dark Amber & Ginger Lily. No wonder that many brands praise it as the "solid perfume from the orient". However, its advertised use nowadays leans towards scenting and decorating spaces instead of wearing it as an accessory for perfuming your body. Oh well, one can still imagine what a tantalizing image it must have been securing a xiangbao around your waist in the olden days.

Scented powder or xiangfen


Anyone who’s familiar with one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, Dream of the Red Chamber, might easily recall the vivid descriptions of various types of cosmetic products favored by ladies way back in the 1700s. One of those alluring products was scented powder or xiangfen . Xiangfen has been mainly created for cosmetic use, just like our modern compact face or body powder. However, the Chinese powder usually takes the form of half a goose egg, and thus the names xiangfen and edanfen ( which literally means "goose egg powder") are used interchangeably for the same thing.


Making rose scented xiangfen, an image from Xiefuchun

Xiangfen is often infused with fresh flowers for their scent, though what contributes to its final scent is more than just floral. A quick search reveals that in the past, ambergris, musk and borneol were often added to obtain a more aromatic and longer lasting scent. However, modern restrictions have definitively removed or substituted many of the potential allergens or ethically non-sustainable ingredients. Popular scents you can find today include jasmine, osmanthus, rose and gardenia. Even though some of the scented powders don't have a scent indication written on the package, you can rest assured that you'll be welcomed by a floral, powdery scent. I bought a box of xiangfen as a souvenir when visiting China a few years ago, and this Daichunlin branded xiangfen had the loveliest sweet narcissus, creamy rose, fruits and cooling powder scent, which lasted for a whole day on my face. Though as much as xiangfen was and still is the Chinese version of face powder, many vendors nowadays strongly suggest you leave cheaper varieties (which are around ¥30, or less than $5 USD) for scenting your wardrobe only, and only put the ones over ¥250 (approximately $36 USD) on your skin. I guess that's fair enough, these are indeed highly fragrant products.

Hair oil or touyou


Talking about hair oil as in touyou in the Chinese world, not the more westernized nourishing hair treatment oil or balm, the images conjured up are usually to do with old times, long and shiny black hair, and the scent association is inevitably osmanthus, as nearly all old fashioned touyou go for the sweet osmanthus scent. It seems that touyou disappeared for a few decades and it had to do with my grandparents’ generation. However, the whole vintage trend seems to bring back the preference of a local brand touyou over the Pantene miracle treatment in many younger people who wish to experience a piece of old times. I must be one of them and love to hunt down things with a certain old fashioned charm, and so I indeed got myself a bottle of osmanthus touyou to fulfill my curiosity and longing for nostalgia.

What I can say about the touyou I obtained is that it is indeed very osmanthus smelling in a bubbly sense. It shows this typical sweet, more apricot-like juicy aspect of osmanthus which you’d encounter in many Chinese drugstore osmanthus perfumes. With a consistency like most carrier oils in the world of aromatherapy, touyou brings a rather light feel, and two to three drops on my hair would deliver its delicate sweet aroma for a good 3 hours. Not bad for a "hair perfume", especially since it actually nourishes the hair as well.

My colleagues Marlen and John will highlight scented objects from Japan and the New England region (USA) respectively in our future installments. We hope you'll return to read these in the coming months. We also invite you to explore our Fragrances and Cultures category, as well as Fragrantica writer Elena Vosnaki's collection of 1001 Past Tales, investigating fragrance culture throughout history.