Xuelei Huang’s lecture takes Nanjing Road, the most bustling commercial center in Shanghai and an epitome of “Chinese modernity,” as an example to introduce the changing smellscapes in modern China in both physical and conceptual terms.
Smell is immensely meaningful to humans. Often considered elusive, ephemeral, and volatile, it has long been excluded from scholarly accounts on culture and history. While Western colonial expansion and the development of global trading networks brought foreign commodities and lifestyles to China, they also brought a profusion of exotic scents, say, of coffee, perfume, soap, and Western medicine–especially since the mid-nineteenth century. This lecture takes Nanjing Road, the most bustling commercial center in Shanghai and an epitome of Chinese modernity, as an example to introduce the changing smellscapes in modern China in both physical and conceptual terms. Using historical maps, travel writings, and literary accounts, this lecture invites the audience to look at two overlapping processes: deodorizing and odorizing. On the one hand, British colonial officials made strenuous efforts to clean the street and to get rid of stench, which echoed the booming public health movements in Europe during the same period. Stench and filth were invariably associated with the past and the uncivilized. On the other hand, new odors were introduced. This lecture focuses on three sites, the pharmacy, the coffee house, and the department store in order to examine smell’s relationships with particular values. Taking this zone as a slice of urban smellscapes in modern China, this lecture invites the audience to rethink the ways in which “sensory foundations of modern life” (Georg Simmel) was/is going through changes and transformations.