Personal ethics and aesthetics

Odours and occasion

Odours and smells are an under-estimated aspect of impression and memory. Literati arranged and related them to wider aesthetic intentions and appropriate private or social occasions. Attention to odour spanned a range from seasonal flowers to the highly civilized chemistry of incense.

In private settings, incense might be related to time in both a macro and micro manner. On the one hand, it was considered in respect to qualities preferred for each season. While much of the specifics of this are now difficult to locate, a reflection can still be found in materials prepared to accompany the Japanese tea ceremony. The simple collection of incense shown here is divided according to the Chinese lunar calendar, with each box named in a way that suggests the principal seasonal or weather qualities of that time of year – the cold of winter, the harvest moon, the coming of rain, the growth of new plants.

On the other hand, the burning of incense during a social encounter could be used to pace and characterise the passage of time. An incense clock would have a single line of powdered incense laid along a continuous track. The incense might be varied so that after an anticipated interval, the smoking aroma would change, giving the party a subtle indication of the hour.


Incense for lunar months
Japanese, contemporary
Incense clock
Brass, Shanghai
Contemporary reproduction
of Qing period design (1644-1911)

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