China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng, by Cao Xueqin, 1715?—1763) is redolent of aromas. Fragrances emanating from incense, flowers and cosmetics are ubiquitous in daily life of the Jia family, ranging from religious rituals, literati life, and romantic courtship, to such mundane activities as eating and sleeping. Aromatic vocabularies and imageries suffuse pages of the novel in the names of the maids, chapter titles, poems, and names of pavilions and mansions. Moreover, aromas are highly meaningful in an allegorical way, not only symbolising the transcendence of female purity, but also being employed to embody the distinctive being of each female character. All the aromatic accounts and symbolism evoke olfactory imaginations and make the reading of the novel a rich, multisensory journey.
Although a wide range of aspects regarding The Dream of the Red Chamber have been investigated, details of the aromas have not attracted serious scholarly attention. I argue, however, that aromas offer an essential (but subtle) access to the intricacies of the fictional and allegorical world of the novel. On the one hand, Cao’s masterly handling of aromatic details brings to light the material culture of perfume in late imperial China. On the other hand, aromas articulate the innermost thoughts and messages from the author. This paper analyses both aspects regarding aromas in the novel and aims to explore the essential roles of smell in conceptualising time, space, gender, class, morality and politics in the literary and real worlds in eighteenth-century China.