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Fragrance in Ancient China Newsletter

In many ancient cultures fragrance played a key role in the religious, secular, political and economic lives of the people. The culture of ancient China displays a rich diversity of traditions in which natural aromatics played a significant part and in this newsletter (Part 1 of 2) a brief glimpse 0f that world is attempted.chinese pavillion

The written documentation of Chinese History stretches back thousands of years.

"The History Of China, as documented in ancient writings, dates back some 3,300 years. Modern archaeological studies provide evidence of still more ancient origins in a culture that flourished between 2500 and 2000 B.C. in what is now central China and the lower Huang He ( or Yellow River) Valley of north China. Centuries of migration, amalgamation, and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and political organization that came to be recognizable as Chinese civilization. What makes the civilization unique in world history is its continuity through over 4,000 years to the present century."
from: History of China

During the course of China's lengthy history a culture of great refinement came into being as evidenced by many creative inventions that are accredited to her people. On the material front China in many cases was far in advance of Western culture. Refined farming techniques, advanced systems of medical practice, silk culture, the decimal place system, lacquer work, monetary coins, the iron plow, the kite, the compass, paper, and many other unique and useful inventions came into being in China. See the invention timeline of Ancient China at: Chinese Invention

Along with her devotion to the material sciences, China also evolved a highly rich and sophisticated spiritual, religious, philosophical and cultural life in which a profound respect and appreciation for nature and all her infinite gifts played a major role. In the religious and spiritual vein one can readily site the immense impact that Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism and the I Ching had on the life of the people. A refined aesthetic sensibility was revealed in the realms of gardening, dance, music, poetry, calligraphy, bronze casting, ceramics, silk weaving,painting and other arts and crafts.

These aesthetic disciplines were in part evolved to assist the craftsman and artist in their journey toward refinement of character so that their lives could reflect at least in some degree the eternal laws that the great seers, sages and philosophers discovered as being at the core of all life and if attuned to, would bring into the hearts of the people sublime qualities of contentment, kindness, consideration, compassion etc that would make not only the life of the individual sublime but would benefit society as a whole.


The Chinese Garden

The foundation of many of the disciplines was the Chinese Garden. All the elements of stone, water, plants architecture etc were combined in such a way as to capture the vital principles of harmony, balance and repose found in the natural world(that is the world undisturbed by human beings and their vagaries).

By bringing into practical manifestation these sublime principles in the form of a garden, those sitting in it could receive a unique kind of reinforcement and inspiration to pursue the quest of personal refinement so that one might regain their lost equilibrium and feel at one with the Universe around them. In order to train the mind and enhance its abilities to perceive the Hidden Mystery behind the manifested universe, the arts of poetry and painting were also taught and practiced.

"The abundance and beauty of the natural landscape resources originated and nurtured Chinese art, as well as Chinese gardens and Chinese architecture. According to Chinese tradition, man was not different from all the other created things and regarded as the part of the universe. Human character could be partly judged by the quality of man’s adjustment to the natural forces of his environment. A person who truly loves nature more than worldly “dust” was regarded as a person of the highest spiritual cultivation. The purpose of the Chinese garden is to “bring” nature into the human experience. Chinese garden may be viewed as a miniature of the Chinese landscape. Nature is loved and held in highest honor in Chinese art, but this does not mean that the nature must be simply “duplicated” in its original form. The main principle of Chinese garden art is to recreate nature, to present its essence without an artificial effect. The recreation must be based on profound observation and a deep understanding of the nature. The design of Chinese garden is a process of abstraction and stylization of the existing landscape. The final aim of creating a natural form in Chinese garden is to celebrate the human spirit." from: The Chinese Garden

Classical Chinese gardens employ philosophical principles of Feng Shui and Taoism, striving to achieve harmony and a balance of opposites. Craggy rocks, for example, are juxtaposed against delicate foliage. Water is also an important element of the garden, and the large pond offers stillness, sound, a reflection of the sky, and helps to unify the other elements. Fish and turtles live in the garden and also serve a symbolic purpose. Bats, dragons, and phoenixes are represented in objects throughout the garden. Numerous large rocks are strategically placed and are intended to represent mountains concealing and revealing park elements. See: Classical Chinese Garden

The world of botanical treasures was called upon again and again to assist in the process of self transformation. The same plants were repeatedly chosen to grace the garden. The idea was not to have great number of different plants, but plants that over generations and through their beauty of form, color, texture and fragrance conveyed a particular aesthetic, spiritual or mystic message that all those sitting in its precincts would readily know. These plants were a sort of three dimensional, nonverbal hieroglyphic which helped transport the viewer into increasingly deep levels of awareness that nurtured something in the heart beyond the visible domain. In that respect a number of fragrant plants were carefully selected to display their beauty throughout the season for the sense of smell acted as a powerful link to the invisible realm of higher aspirations.

Selection of specific plants served two main purposes. The first was to give a strong sense and identity with the succession of seasons. This helped people to attune themselves with a sense of time governed by natural rhythms. Each season was thought to have its own message and meaning for those in pursuit of wisdom and insight. The main seasonal plants possessing fragrance were-lotus and peony for summer, osmanthus and chrysanthemum for fall, flowering plum(along with pine and bamboo) for winter, and peach blossom, iris and magnolia for spring. Plants were also selected to portray qualities that were considered essential for developing nobility of character-the cornerstone of the spiritual life.

Plants in Chinese Gardens
Following is a list of plants that fall in this category along with their literary and symbolic meanings:


The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) is from China. It embodies aristocracy, wealth and social status. It is the queen of flowers, paradoxically representing both female beauty and, the yang, the male principle.

The red peony is the most admired and valued.

The white peonypeony symbolizes young girls possessing both wit and beauty.


Sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) evokes autumn, the season when it blooms. It is said to be princely, elegant and eternal. In the regions where it grows it is often associated with simplicity and simple life style. It is also associated with the moon because, according to the legend, that is where a hare prepared an elixir of life in the shadow of the sweet osmanthus leaves.


Viewing the Mid-Autumn Moon
a poem by Wang Jian

In the moonlit courtyard crows are nesting in the trees;
Osmanthus flowers soundlessly are dampened by the dew.
Tonight's the night that all will view the brightness of the moon:
Upon whose homes will autumn sadness linger*.


The favorite tree of Chinese painters, the pine symbolizes longevity , tenacity, dignity . Pine trees rank above all other trees and epitomize self-discipline. Pine, bamboos and plum-trees are the "Three Friends in Winter."

At the mountain-lodge of the Buddhist priest Ye
Waiting in vain for my friend Ding
--a poem by Meng Haoran

Now that the sun has set beyond the western range,
Valley after valley is shadowy and dim....
And now through pine-trees come the moon and the chill of evening,
And my ears feel pure with the sound of wind and water
Nearly all the woodsmen have reached home,
Birds have settled on their perches in the quiet mist....
And still -- because you promised -- I am waiting for you, waiting,
Playing lute under a wayside vine.


The magnolia is a symbol of feminine sweetness and beauty. The Chinese word for magnolia, Mu-lan, was the name of a legendary warrior maiden. In ancient times only the emperor of China was entitled to own magnolia trees. He would occasionally give a magnolia root as an imperial favor. Yulan magnolia, Magnolia denudata, is native to central and eastern China. It has been cultivated in Chinese Buddhist temple gardens since 600 AD. Its flowers were regarded as a symbol of purity in the Tang Dynasty and it was planted in the grounds of the Emperor's palace.


The plum tree is the first to blossom, producing buds before its leaves emerge. Since it can flower very early in the year, it is a symbol of winter; because of its purity it also symbolizes virginity.
In late winter, the bare branches of Prunus mume put forth breathtaking masses of blossoms on bare branches, often while the garden is still covered with snow. Taoists believe one who contemplates this sight can experience the essence of spiritual harmony. Prunus mume, called "plum blossom," is one of the most important species in Chinese gardens and represents renewal and strength of will. Branches forced to bloom indoors symbolize friendship.
from: Missouri Botanical Garden: Chinese Garden

--a poem by palace attendant Guo

High beyond the thick wall a tower shines with sunset
Where peach and plum are blooming and the willowcotton flies.
You have heard in your office the court-bell of twilight;
Birds find perches, officials head for home.
Your morning-jade will tinkle as you thread the golden palace;
You will bring the word of Heaven from the closing gates at night.
And I should serve there with you; but being full of years,
I have taken off official robes and am resting from my troubles.


Thanks to the Buddhist influence, the lotus (or sea-rose) is of unique importance in Chinese folklore and symbolism. It is the symbol of purity. The lotus comes out of the mire but is not itself soiled. It is inwardly empty yet outwardly upright. It has no branches but yet smells sweet. The words for lotus in Chinese have the same meanings as: to bind, connect (in marriage), one after the other, uninterrupted, to love, and modesty. It is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.

The fact that seed pods, flowers, and buds are present at the same time denotes the three stages of existence–past, present, and future. The many seeds in each seed head suggest abundant progeny and, because its rhizomes are firmly rooted in the mud and its flowers and leaves are numerous, it is a symbol of steadfastness and prosperity in the family.For the Buddhist, lotus represents a noble character, the soul battling against the material world to reach the light. It is also a Confucian model for the enlightened man. In Buddhism there is special symbolism attached to white, blue and pink lotus.

Blue Lotus (Skt. utpala; Tib. ut pa la): This is a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the preferred flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.

White Lotus (Skt. pundarika; Tib. pad ma dkar po): This represents the state of spiritual perfection and total mental purity (bodhi). It is associated with the White Tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is reinforced by the color of her body.

Pink Lotus (Skt. padma; Tib. pad ma dmar po): This the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it is associated with the Great Buddha himself.

Lodging at Rising Dragon Temple
a poem by Qi Wu-Qian

Fragrant night shrine incense
Forgot to go home
Pine balm ancient temple door
Bright lamplight from the abbot's room
Beads bind the bhikkhus' robes
White Sun teaches purity of heart
Utpala Blue Lotus reveals the secrets of dharma
No end to flowers falling from Heaven
Birds every-where everywhere fly away with beaks full


The orchid, characterized by its sweet smell, generally stands for love and beauty.
The orchid is rare and exquisite plant - the pleasures of which are generally reserved for those who can afford it. It therefore indicates grace and refinement and it is a symbol of the rare and precious. It is represented by the Chinese character "Lan". The orchid flower is associated with the South Wind and season Summer. Confucius compared the orchid flower to the superior man and its scent to the pleasures of friendship.

With my brother at the south study
Thinking in the moonlight of Vice-Prefect Cui in Shanyin
--a poem by Wang Changling

Lying on a high seat in the south study,maple and azalea
We have lifted the curtain-and we see the rising moon
Brighten with pure light the water and the grove
And flow like a wave on our window and our door.
It will move through the cycle, full moon and then crescent again,
Calmly, beyond our wisdom, altering new to old.
...Our chosen one, our friend, is now by a limpid river --
Singing, perhaps, a plaintive eastern song.
He is far, far away from us, three hundred miles away.
And yet a breath of orchids comes along the wind.


Mandarin Oranges

Mandarin Oranges-The shape and color symbolize the sun and connect with the yang or masculine principle. The fruits are a symbol of good fortune and good business.
The third New Year citrus, mandarin orange (C. reticulata), may have reached China from northeastern India, where a wild relative is still found. The fruit was esteemed for its fragrance as much as its taste. One variety from Nanking was used by fashionable women to scent their hands. The Cantonese name is "gut," as in dai gut, "good fortune." Mandarin oranges accompany the traditional red envelopes of money as New Year's gifts.

Orchid and Orange II
--a poem by Zhang Jiuling

Here, south of the Yangzi, grows a red orange tree.
All winter long its leaves are green,
Not because of a warmer soil,
But because its' nature is used to the cold.
Though it might serve your honourable guests,
You leave it here, far below mountain and river.
Circumstance governs destiny.
Cause and effect are an infinite cycle.
You plant your peach-trees and your plums,
You forget the shade from this other tree.

A symbol for longevity, the peach is the most symbolic of any tree or fruit. Its tree wood and color keep demons at bay, and its flower petals can cast spells on men.

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.
--a poem by Li Po

This Chinese flower symbol is said to bestow the flowering of our hidden talents. It is reputed to augment the hard work put into careers, assuring those with careers will be rewarded when incorporating this auspicious symbol in their lives. As such, the Narcissus is an excellent gift for those who are seeking career advancement and luck.

Fragrant Cloud/Hsiang Yun Perfume
Each exploration of the aromatic traditions of ancient cultures gives rise to numerous ideas for perfume creation. There are many ways that one may go about evolving a concept for a perfume and for me it happens while exploring the different aromatic plants that have been loved and cherished by the people living in the ancient cultures in which they appeared.

The traditions that arose in ancient China were in the first instance influenced by the living plants and their aromas as they appeared through the seasons. The role of the natural world in the life of the Chinese people was deep and significant. The plants which they chose to reflect the moods of the seasons as well as their symbolic aesthetic, spiritual and mystical messages were relatively few in number but carried an immense impact.

As I studied a bit about the classical Chinese garden and viewed various images related to their design features including stone, water, architecture, plants etc I felt it would be a great delight to create a perfume that would help bring those images and poems to life. I felt it might help infuse life and vitality into a subject which was limited to material I could view over the internet. This is one of the great virtues of natural essences-that is that many of the plants that flourished hundreds and even thousands of years ago in a particular culture are even now being grown and in some cases their essences extracted. Their exquisite aromas act as a silent but effective means of transporting through time and space into cultures that are distant and different from our own. It is a simple and sweet way of linking ourselves with people who have gone before us. Flowers and their sublime perfumes though appreciated in unique ways in different times and places, carry with them a unifying message of beauty, simplicity and charm which appeals to everyone.

This perfume, then is an attempt to capture some of the ancient aromatic beauty of the fragrances of the plants found in traditional Chinese gardens. There will be a second perfume that will be created for the next newsletter which will endeavor to capture the beauty of the temple incenses that helped create the atmosphere of tranquil contemplation within the great spiritual traditions of the country.

Fragrant Cloud (Hsiang Yun) Perfume Recipe

1 1/2 ounce Red Mandarin Essential Oil
1/2 ounce Magnolia Lily CO2
1/30th ounce Cinnamon Bark Sri Lanka
1/4 ounce of Jasmin sambac Absolute
1/4 ounce Osmanthus Absolute
1/2 ounce Patchouli "Heart Note" Essential Oil
1/2 ounce Sandalwood New Caledonia
1/15th ounce Star Anise Essential Oil
1/4 ounce Pink Lotus Absolute
1/4 ounce Pine Needle Absolute