Paris exhibition recreates traditional Chinese incense culture

Updated 2018-03-23 10:22:05

A copy of a traditional Chinese painting of the Ming Dynasty that is displayed in the Musée Cernuschi in Paris (Photo/Courtesy of Musée Cernuschi)

When visiting the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, guests can enjoy the scents of ancient Chinese perfumes of different dynasties recreated with original recipes.

Since March 9, the Shanghai Museum and the Musée Cernuschi have been jointly hosting the "Perfumes of China: The culture of incense in imperial times" exhibition, which will run until August 26, to showcase 110 art and archaeological objects, from fragrance burners to incense tables.

Furthermore, the exhibition provides visitors with the opportunity to participate in olfactory experiments facilitated by Francois Demachy, Christian Dior's perfumer.

"I found that the exhibition is quite pioneering. It gives you not only a visual banquet, but also a unique smelling experience," Sophie Bourguignon, a local French visitor, told the Global Times.

"The culture of incense played a major role in Chinese civilization," Eric Lefebvre, director of the Musée Cernuschi, the exhibition's curator, told the Global Times, adding that the showcase was inspired by the current public interest in traditional Chinese incense.

A few years ago, during a trip to China, Lefebvre realized that many people were becoming increasingly interested in ancient Chinese incense culture, including burning incense and collecting objects and documents related to incense.

"This aspect of contemporary Chinese social life struck me," Lefebvre said.

Fragrances are a new aspect of the traditional museum, which historically has been dominated by visual culture. "It was also a way to introduce a new exhibition model, not only by focusing on paintings, bronzes or ceramics, but including different kinds of objects linked to the incense culture of Imperial China," he added.

The exhibition guides visitors on a journey of exploration toward the history of incense and perfume in China from the 3rd century BC to the 19th century.

'Silk Road is Incense Road'

China has had a rich incense culture since the early Neolithic times, and later incense was used in a wide range of cultural activities including religious ceremonies and intellectual and literary life, permeating the development of Chinese civilization.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), exotic and precious incense ingredients and spices began to enter the hinterland of China through the ancient Silk Road.

The term "Silk Road" was first coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 as the collective name given to the network of trade routes linking China to Central and West Asia, the Mediterranean as well as India. The road was named after silk because silk at the time was the most common item exported from China, among other goods such as porcelain and tea.

The Silk Road also transmitted a wide range of imports from exotic cultures to China. Among them, incense and spices were the major goods.

"In this sense, the Silk Road is also the 'Incense Road' and 'Spice Road' from the Chinese perspective," Xiao Lei, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing Association for the Promotion of Incense Culture, told the Global Times.

Referred to as "Xiang" in Chinese, the word literally means "fragrance," but also carries a wider meaning of "incense, aroma, perfume and spices," referring to a broad group of scented substances that came in different forms.

During the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (AD 960-1279) dynasties, personal fragrances had an important part to play when nobles entered scent contests. Burning incense soon became a highly artistic act, later providing inspiration for many artists, writers and musicians.

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