I read a fascinating article the other day on China and fragrances which set off my curiosity on a few issues, got me digging into others, and made me ponder a few impenetrable questions that only time will tell. The article is called, “Sweet smell of success: Foreign fragrances dominate China’s perfume market,” and it’s written by David Dodwell for the South China Morning Post. Mr. Dodwell is the Executive Director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group and appears to write extensively on China. This time, he turned his attention to perfume after spending a day in Heathrow’s Duty Free section in Terminal 5 and seeing “a flock of fashionable mainland Chinese women scenting their way through the Jo Malone part of the fragrance section.”
That led him to the following question: given China’s global manufacturing process and the emergence of so many Chinese brands, why couldn’t he think of a single Chinese-made perfume? I have my own personal theories on that issue, but what interested me more were other points he made in passing, like Mao‘s Cultural Revolution or the role of oud (chen xiang (沉香)). I’ll be talking about all of that today, in addition to China’s fragrance history, fragrance culture, and its changing attitudes to scent over time.
Let’s start with some background to place all of this into context. I’ve written about China, its fragrance markets, and its cultural attitudes towards perfume before in a piece entitled, China & Japan’s Fragrance Markets & Culture. The financial figures quoted there are pretty widely known, with my sources having first discussed them back in 2013 or earlier, so I wasn’t surprised to see them mentioned in the Dodwell piece as well. To quote the basic numbers from the Euromonitor report I used in my 2014 piece:
the Chinese account for 20% of the world’s population, but only contribute 1% to value sales of fragrances. The average Chinese person is not used to wearing perfume, unless they are extremely particular about their image, usually those who work for international companies or as high-ranking executives.
You can read my piece for more details, but the basic nutshell is that, for a variety of different reasons, fragrance isn’t commonly perceived or used in China the way that it is in the West and it is primarily purchased as a prestige thing by the fashionable Chinese elite at this time. That is why Chanel dominates the market. In 2012, it had a 12% share of the market (sales), followed by Dior with 8%. Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and L’Oréal China were in third, fourth and fifth place, respectively.
The new Dodwell article repeats these figures, but that wasn’t what interested me. It was the illegality of fragrances under Mao‘s rule and during the Cultural Revolution. As my piece, his piece, and every piece on China usually notes, there isn’t a longstanding Chinese perfume culture in the same way that there is in such countries as France. Attitudes are different, the role of scent is different, and even basic body aromas are different as well. But what was complete news to me was Dodwell’s comment that Mao literally made perfumes illegal. Flat-out illegal!
It seems the first, and perhaps most important reason for China’s laggardliness is the country’s recent chaotic history. During the Cultural Revolution years, the use of perfume was literally illegal. Whoever used scents or perfumes before 1967 either suffered torture and humiliation as a poisonous weed, or quickly got rid of any evidence.
By the time the country began to emerge after the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Chinese people had lost the habit. And anyway, during a period of such widespread poverty, perfume was a luxury most were happy to ignore. Whatever perfume industry existed before 1967 evaporated into thin air.
It’s obvious that symbols of Western bourgeois “decadence” would be frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution, but the implication of an actual, specific law targeting fragrance and creating illegality took me by surprise. And I’m still not sure there was precise, officially enacted legislation on the subject. There may only have been mere comments by Mao in his “Little Red Book” of quotes. Admittedly, that may have been enough and he may not have needed to pass actual legislation because his word basically amounted to the law back then.
Still, I spent a fair bit of time in trying to find more details on the subject and on what Mao may have explicitly decreed, said, or thought about the use of fragrances, but I didn’t have much luck beyond generalities. One scholar wrote that Mao saw cosmetics (in which perfume was lumped or included) as “abhorrent symbols of ‘bourgeois decadence.'” (See, Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Oxford University Press, 2010.) A novel called Liason by Joyce Wadler had an illuminating paragraph detailing all the things which were deemed objectionable by the Chairman and his Red Guard, ranging from perfume to “the old arts,” “nonproletarian clothing,” and even poor Balzac and Victor Hugo. There isn’t much else as specifics go, but I suppose you don’t really need it to get the essential bottom line which is that, between ideological, political, and, later on, basic financial impecunity reasons, China’s vibrant olfactory history came to screeching halt.
What a rich history of scent there was before, though. Read any book on the Imperial Court or the imperial concubine system, and you’ll see the role of fragrant oils, flowers, sandalwood, and even occasionally some spices brought from the ancient Silk Road. Take for example, Empress Cixi, the notorious “Dragon Empress” or “She-Dragon” who went from being a young teenage concubine to ruling single-handedly in her own right, allegedly resulting in the “disintegration” of the Qing dynasty and the rise of Republicanism. (I think her vicious, terrible reputation is quite unfair and I subscribe to modern or revisionist historical analysis, but I’m getting side-tracked into a pet issue.) 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. (Her most famous beauty regimen, though, was her daily application of crushed pearls to her face.)
But the use of fragrant products goes back centuries before Cixi or the Qing Dynasty, and encompassed a variety of things, often driven by Taoism which can be dated to at least the 3rd or 4th century, B.C. As a site called Scentillo explains, in Taoist belief:
the extraction of a plant’s fragrance was thought to liberate the plant’s soul. The transformation of solid incense into scented vapours mirrored the transmutation from the physical or mortal state to a spiritual level or Tao.
Traditionally there was little distinction between incense, perfume, herbs or spices. The Chinese believed “every perfume is a medicine” and that a deep connection existed between an aroma and the status of the mind and body. The word “Heang” was ascribed to a perfume, incense or fragrance. “Heang” has 6 classifications according to the mood it creates: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble.
An old 2007 China Daily article has a lovely description that elaborates on some of China’s ancient attitudes to scent and on the various treasures prized by the old imperial and aristocratic elite, from incense to floral “nectars” worn by women:
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.
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 modern China, actual fragrance in liquid or spray form is a bit of a different matter, though. My earlier piece provides some reasons therefor beyond the historical/Cultural Revolution background, like, for example, biological physiology with Asians not really sweating like Westerns, or the importance of cleanliness determining the popularity of certain types of olfactory products. As a result, body sprays like Axe or even indirect scenting from the lingering effect of laundry products are popular. When actual perfume is bought, it seems to be a prestige thing and ideally involves the lightest, quietest, and freshest compositions possible.
Strong, powerful fragrances may be seen as a vulgarity by some, but a 2014 article in Jing Daily by Olivier Verot called “The Scent Of Opportunity: How China’s Fragrance Market Can Reach Its Potential” referenced yet another obstacle to wide social acceptance amongst all sectors of society: gender associations. Fragrance is not seen as a manly thing because, as the Jing article explains, “the word ‘scent’ evokes femininity above all, which places an additional barrier to the sale of perfumes for men.” As noted in both his piece and my own earlier one, companies are using popular male celebrities or actors (Korean and Japanese) to make fragrance seem more acceptable to men, but it still has a long, long way to go.
But what about the question that led to Dodwell’s curiosity and article on this whole matter to begin with, his puzzlement why he couldn’t think of the name of a single one of China’s own perfumes (as opposed to those put out by Western companies like, say, Bvlgari)? It’s a valid point, but I personally think the answer is partially a simple export issue. China doesn’t export and market its own fragrances the way it may do its technological or other consumer items. It’s simply not as important, serious, or valued.
Even so, just because we in the West or Mr. Dodwell in Hong Kong can’t instantly think of the name of a Chinese fragrance doesn’t mean they aren’t made or, in fact, popular. I saw quite a few billboards for fragrance when I was in China, and it wasn’t solely Brad Pitt’s face staring down at me for Chanel. In my earlier piece, I used a Chinese fragrance ad (right) and it wasn’t hugely difficult to find, either. The perfumes exist, they’re sold, but they don’t have a huge market share for the related, interconnected reasons I’ve discussed above regarding the social and cultural attitudes towards scent. Since they’re bought primarily for prestige reasons instead of olfactive ones, that’s why a brand like Chanel has the largest market share instead of a locally-produced fragrance.
Besides the issue of illegality under Mao, the other thing in Dodwell’s article that made me sit up was his discussion of oud which, in China, is apparently called chenxiang or chen xiang. I had no idea that its usage went back quite as far as it did. Dodwell writes:
Chinese elites and their courtesans also had a habit of carrying bags of scented petals and leaves among their clothes. The most cherished (and expensive) scents seemed to be chenxiang (in English, Agarwood) and floral water (used as much as an insect repellant as a perfume). About 120 years ago, a Shanghai company called Liushen began making a soon-famous scent called Shuang Mei, or Two Sisters, which eventually became popular in the 1930s as far afield as Paris with the brand name Vive. But in the chaos of the 1930s and 1940s Liushen was absorbed by Shanghai Jahwa, the country’s biggest chemicals company, and Shuang Mei disappeared.
Shuang Mei‘s fragrance seems to have been an eau de toilette and, while I haven’t managed to learn what notes were in it, it appears to be completely unrelated to the oud mentioned by Dodwell in passing. From what I’ve gathered, Shuang Mei (“The Two Sisters”) was a cosmetics brand founded in 1898 and, now, apparently set to make a return in modern China. (See, Beauty and the Eyes of the Beholder, Chinaview.cn; and Luxury perfume brand Shanghai Vive retakes China.) But it had nothing to do with oud.
So I decided to look up “Chenxiang.” First, it appears that agarwood use is still primarily limited to burning the wood as a sort of incense, and rarely as any sort of sprayed-on perfume. Second, the prices are astronomical. Third, there may or may not be a narrow exception to the burning-vs-fragrance rule involving some local brands, but it is wholly unclear and all of it seems, once again, driven by prestige and luxury considerations. The Verot/Jing Daily article linked above states, for example:
there has been a rise of local brands with luxury perfume brands such as those that make chen xiang (沉香), known in English as agarwood, which is very much sought by wealthy Chinese not for its smell but for the prestige brought by having such an evanescent perfume.
The articles I’ve read have a perplexing linguistic tendency to use the word “Chen Xiang” interchangeably for both the actual wood product and for the alleged, purported local fragrances which Verot describes. Same with the word “perfume” or “fragrance” being used to reference mere olfaction or scented odors. Beyond the Verot piece, I’ve found several other references to the same magical, mysterious, oriental “perfume” that Chinese luxury buyers are going crazy for, but none of them give a specific name or brand. Instead, they merely launch into a discussion of agarwood and its history, talking about it as a wood product more than an actual olfactory composition sold in a bottle. That’s the case for the Verot/Jing Daily article but also for two others, like one from Shanghai Daily that I’ll get to in a minute, or the Cosmetics China Agency’s “The new fragrance that every wealthy Chinese fight over for.” At this point, I truly have no clue if there is an actual Chinese luxury oud eau de parfum out there, or if people are simply using the term “perfume” imprecisely and sloppily as a catch-all for the fragrant vapors of the burnt wood chips. I really think it’s the latter, and that they’re not actually talking about a liquid composition in the conventional Western or European sense.
The only thing that is completely clear to me is that the evanescent aroma of those wood chips is prized by the luxury-minded elite and that prestige is, once again, a part of it. A 2013 Shanghai Daily article by Wang Jie entitled “Chinese fragrance more precious than gold” was fascinating to read because it demonstrated the extent of the current oud craze in China. Apparently, there is a very famous television host called Wang Yinan who heads up an actual oud appreciation and research society called The National Chen Xiang Research Association. He explained to the reporter that, in ancient and Imperial China, the elites used oud “in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic, diuretic, stimulant and aphrodisiac [… and] to treat heart pain, stomach pain, fatigue, stress and anxiety.” Nowadays, though, oud has become “the ultimate luxury, without parallel” for the simple reason that its smell is so fleeting.
The impression I have from reading his words and the article is that burning oud is the ultimate status symbol because it’s akin to seeing piles of your money go up in smoke. The journalist wrote that “the price of a piece of high-quality chen xiang [could] reach several million yuan. At 10,000 yuan per gram, it is 35 times the price of gold that costs 260 yuan per gram. Some is carved into artwork.” He later states that 10,000 yuan was US$1,629 (at the time the story was written in 2013), which means that means several million yuan was the equivalent a several hundred thousand dollars US.
That’s a lot of money for one “piece,” singular, to go up in literal smoke! But I think that’s really what makes oud so popular for the Chinese super-elite who have more money than they know what to do with. As the oud aficionado, Wang Yinan, explains in the article:
“If you buy a house, antique or jewelry, they remain as concrete items,” he says. “But chen xiang is different. It is burned for its fragrance, the fleeting moment of enjoyment. Nothing is left, but the fragrance, the temporary fragrance. Isn’t this the most luxurious thing on the world?”
At those prices, yes, it most clearly is….
Going back to actual perfume as perfume, in the conventional sense, I personally don’t see things changing in China’s fragrance market in the immediate future, particularly not in terms of an attitudinal shift across wide swathes of society whereby perfume will be loved for its own sake. (And most definitely not strong, powerful perfumes.) Mr. Dodwell is more optimistic about “significant growth” in the sector and attitude adjustments, but I still think status symbols prestige factors will drive sales for the next decade. Take those fashionable women with whom he began his story; they were buying Jo Malone, one of the lightest, quietest, freshest and simplest brands with a (supposed) prestige factor. I honestly can’t see the average, every day, typical Chinese consumer scouring eBay for something like vintage Opium, for example, or hungering for Amouage.
Having said that, I’d like to give a huge shout out to one of my readers, Jinhui Xie, in Beijing who went out and somehow managed to unearth a big bottle of 1980s vintage Opium. Bless his heart, he made me smile for days with his Opium photo, and he gives me hope that more and more of the Chinese will follow in his steps, discovering and, more importantly, genuinely appreciating real, proper perfumery instead of Jo Malone or that Axe crap. (You smell great, Jinhui, you smell absolutely great! Keep up the good fight!)
Even if the Chinese fragrance industry is unlikely to change any time soon in a truly broad fashion, Mr. Dodwell made the interesting claim that China might emerge as a force for the sale of fragrance materials. I had no idea that “[a]n estimated 90 per cent of the world’s eucalyptus oil, and half the world’s geranium oil, come from Yunnan in China’s south west.” Granted, eucalyptus isn’t a typical or common note in high-end perfumery, and it’s certainly not going to challenge the power of the rose, but geranium at least has a wider applicability. Vetiver is even more useful, and that is also grown quite a bit in China. Still, I agree with Mr. Dodwell that China is hardly going to supplant Grasse as the go-to source of materials for the fragrance industry, not for decades to come, if ever. (Barring some natural catastrophe in Grasse, god forbid, I’m going with “not ever.”)
I’ll end today’s look at China by going back in time to Confucius. He talked about scent quite a bit in his writings, particularly orchids which he saw as a symbol of noble character. “Of all flowers, the orchid is one that has always had a moral impact on Chinese culture and society. It is a flower that has a cultivation history of over two thousand years and its first association with humanity was said to be made by Confucius.” (Alice Poon, “Orchids and Confucius,” Asia Sentinel, 2008.) I’ll leave you with Ms. Poon’s translation of one of Confucius’ pieces of wisdom:
If you are in the company of good people, it is like entering a room full of orchids. After a while, you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice it. If you are in the company of bad people, it is like going into a room that smells of fish. After a while, you don’t notice the fishy smell as you have been immersed in it.
May you always be in the company of good people, so that you never smell of bad fish….