Hot Noise and Emotive Scents: Review of Sensing China

Sensing China: Modern Transformations of Sensory Culture. Shengqing Wu & Xuelei Huang, eds.. Routledge, 2022.

Reviewed by Astrid Møller-Olsen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2023)

The ancient pages of the book before me are rumpled by water damage, the lower right corner of each page is stained brown and all but torn off, it smells musty and would feel sticky were I allowed to touch it. This object is a product of repeated multisensory reading sessions. It is a volume of choral sheet music from the European Middle Ages and its pages are marked by the audible breath of the singers, as well as by the touch of their fingers, hastily turning the page in time for the next verse. Holding it in their hands, they viewed the sheet music with their eyes and translated it into sound with their brains and vocal cords. The temperature and moisture of the room and the bodies in it merged with the sounds and became a visual imprint, a tactile trace of a melody heard long ago.

As this description of one object from the small but wondrous exhibition “Sensational Books” (2022) at the Weston Library in Oxford shows, the boundaries between sensory categories—and between physical and social aspects of sensation—are as permeable as they are practical. What is “a sense” really? How many are there, and might they not differ between periods, cultures, bodies, and social contexts? These are some of the questions posed by contemporary sensory studies, a field that combines sociological, anthropological, and historical approaches to diversify and nuance our understanding of what sensation means, has meant, and can mean. It is highly fitting that Sensing China, a new and very welcome addition to this cross-disciplinary area of scholarship, begins with a deconstruction of the very term “sense.”

It is this flexible approach to multi- and cross-sensory realms that Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang instill in the reader by beginning the introductory chapter to their edited volume with a quote from Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 that includes the lines “colour can appear to embody temperature, sound embody form, heat and cold have weight and smell solidity” (1). To Qian’s poetic rumination on synaesthesia (通感), Wu and Huang add that their own objective is to “offer a critical investigation of a variety of sensory phenomena, representations, and discourses in Chinese cultural history, and of modern transformations of sensory culture in particular” (3). With a mind firmly focused on sensory collaboration, transformation, and context, rather than sensory systematics, the reader can begin to explore the manifold methodological and disciplinary perspectives in the following eleven chapters.

The volume is chronologically arranged in four parts—Part 1: Understanding the Senses in Traditional Culture; Part 2: Reconfiguring the Senses and Modern Sensibility; Part 3: Socialist Corporeality, Sensorium and Memory; and Part 4: Senses, Media and Postmodernity—covering sensory culture in China from as early as 500 BCE to well into the 2000s (followed by an epilogue). This makes it easier for readers interested in specific periods to find their way. However, when reading all the chapters (and I encourage you to do so, because insights are not limited to historical facts but also include innovative methodologies and inspiring analyses), shared themes surface. Although a cursory inspection of the table of contents seem to reveal that many of the chapters focus on individual senses, most of them end up demonstrating that no sense works in isolation and that sensation is always social and quite often emotional as well. Instead of proceeding through the chapters in order, below I survey the chapters with an eye toward their shared themes and concerns, as well as highlighting key arguments and insights; to save space, I refer directly to the authors rather than the full title of each chapter.

Jane Geaney, author of the pioneering On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought,[1] reminds us that the notion of “a sense” as a universal concept is the first obstacle we need to dismantle to gain a deeper understanding of sensory experiences, thoughts, and transformations across time. She begins by destabilizing any easy translation of the Chinese term 官 guan as “senses that inform and/or confuse the heart-mind (心 xin)” and goes on to “reassess the very idea of an early Chinese concept of ‘sense’” (19). Geaney shows that early texts were not very systematic in their use of the term guan and that although guan sometimes substitutes for specific sensory organs such as the eye or the ear, i.e., the physical forms by which we grasp the world, it is also used for less conventional “senses” such as happiness, form, name, and more, leading her to conclude that “we cannot infer that guan replaces a general category term like ‘sense’” (20). In short, when reading early Chinese texts, we tend to treat guan as a dead metaphor when, as Geaney demonstrates, it was still very much alive and flexible.

Like Geaney, Paolo Santangelo deconstructs the notion of a “sense” and adds an important affective dimension to our understanding of sensation when he notes that the modern term ganjue 感覺 “makes no distinction between mental and physical feelings” and that “social and moral effects of the senses remain the basis of debate on senses” in Ming and Qing sources (43). Sensation, according to Santangelo, is not exclusively physical but inherently social and emotional as well. He employs this position to delve into the social aspects of scent as a marker of cultural and gendered identity that “signals the unity of the physical and social body [and] transfers ideological and social distinctions to a visceral level” (52). Xuelei Huang continues Santangelo’s exploration of the relationship between scent and identity to analyse how specific fragrances not only set social groups apart but can also act as medium through which one may live out a fantasy of belonging to another class, gender, or ethnicity through a kind of “smell-voyeurism” (81).[2]

Staying on the theme of emotions and sensory mediations, Carlos Rojas analyses mediated touch as an enhanced form of intimacy. He notes that because the sense of touch is surrounded and guarded by norms and taboos, visual mediation allows vicarious tactile interchanges where direct touch is not possible due to social convention—as between father and son in Song Dong’s 宋冬 artworks—or because of sexual normativity—as with the male lovers in Wong Kar-wai 王家衛 and Zhang Yuan’s 張元films. Shengqing Wu likewise examines the confluences between visuality and tactility in her study of how Chinese cinemagoers in the 1910s and 1920s learned a new way of kissing from the actors on the screen and went on to savor the smell and taste of the sweet (甜蜜) kiss that was the product of this multisensory mimesis. One could extend this historical survey backwards from the contemporary norms regarding men touching men that Rojas analyzes, through Wu’s description of the visual introduction of new heterosexual kissing standards in the early twentieth century, and on to premodern Chinese medicine, where, as Elisabeth Hsu has shown,[3] rules regarding who could touch the female body required diagnostics on women to be performed through the medium of a silk cord to avoid direct skin contact.

In my own work on literary sensory studies,[4] I have been inspired by the idea of whole-body sensation (身體感) proposed and developed in the anthology Body/Object NuancesResearch on Material Things and Bodily Sensations, edited by 余舜德 Yu Shuenn-Der. [5] It would have been exciting if more of the chapters in Sensing China engaged directly with the broader field of sensory studies, taking up comparisons with findings from other areas, disciplines, and periods as well as with new theories and conceptualizations of sensation.

Jie Li’s chapter stands out for its introduction of a new and radically cross-sensory concept, anchored in her literal translation of 热闹 renao (lively) as “hot noise”—a multisensory term that is “at once visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, and haptic” (202). This brilliantly conceived analytical fulcrum allows Li to examine the whole-body experience of open-air cinema in Mao-era China from a variety of different and overlapping sensory perspectives. Above all, Li shows that the physical surroundings of open-air cinema were as important as the content of the film being screened. Even when a screening was suspended due to frequent breakdowns in the mobile equipment, the canvas screen itself, blowing in the wind, became a spectacle known as “white cloth film” (205). When in motion, the sensory symphony on screen was coupled with an equally entertaining sensory disharmony off screen, consisting of shouts, bickering, and laughter from neighbors all around. The “phantom commensality” (211) of filmic feasts was accompanied by the festive smells and tastes from homemade snacks and street vendors. As Lena Henningsen shows in her chapter, partaking by proxy is a theme that continues to resurface in the “spiritual feasts” of recalling past meals during times of hunger, which is given permanence through inscription in literary texts (178).

Returning to the hot noise of open-air cinema, Li describes how the film itself was bodily produced by people on manual generators, pedalling to provide the needed electricity, and consumed not only optically (with even the visual impression bracketed by the heads of other spectators) but corporeally and socially by the crowd as well. The very nature of open-air cinema led to an “intense awareness of one’s body between the sky and earth, vulnerable to wind, rain, snow, mosquitoes, heat and cold,” while the social dimension took center stage when film screenings were used for political purposes as well as for matchmaking (215-216). The communal nature of such sensory experiences is not only of academic interest, as Xiaobing Tang argues in his chapter, they have been instrumental in transforming Chinese society. Stressing the need for historians to understand the bodily experiences as well as the material circumstances of historical subjects, he concludes that when it comes to 1930s China, “unless we truly grasp the sensory implications as well as the affective power of mass singing, our understanding of a formative stage of modern Chinese culture may remain incomplete and inadequate” (143).

In open-air cinema, the social, contextual, and collaborative aspects of sensation naturally come to the fore. However, by using a multisensory analytical term like hot noise, other researchers could tease out more subtle but equally somatic dimensions of pursuits usually viewed with a visual bias. After all, even lone reading sessions in quiet rooms are bodily practises, situated in time, space, and language—affected by expectation, mood, paratext, room temperature, hunger, ambient noise, memory, and more.

Celebrating and employing multisensory frameworks, however, is not without hazards, as two of the chapters in this volume point out. In her chapter, Laikwan Pang analyses how Maoist romantic aesthetics, despite claiming to represent the materiality of everyday life, could be “understood as anti-material and anti-corporeal” (166) because of the priority given to the abstract ideological message that the graphic bodies were there to convey. In a similar vein, Kirk Denton cautions that, although involving more senses can help museums become more than “mausoleums,” the immersive quality of sensory exhibitions risk blinding the visitor to the constructedness of the narratives on display, their selectivity, and the things that are absent from them.

Despite such possible pitfalls, the value of Sensing China and its multisensory paradigm is (at least) twofold. First, it adds a new corpus of studies from Chinese languages and cultures to the ongoing global research on sensation and the social; second, the collective method of “(re)thinking through the senses” (3) may form an exciting and fruitful framework for future engagements with material grassroots history, comparative literature, and immersive fieldwork.

Although the Weston Library exhibition did display books chewed by toddlers, most of us have stopped tasting books in such a direct way. Yet there is no denying that books are more than just visual. That is why reading with a cup of coffee on a sunny bench is not the same as reading hungrily in a library sustained only by the musty scent of old pages or reading on a tram full of teenagers because you just have to finish this book you have for review. The Weston exhibition posed the question of what the growth of e-books might do to our reading habits and to the multisensory aspects of reading. Well, a few years ago I saw a young man on a bus in Shanghai flicking at the virtual page edges of his e-reader. Clearly, tactility was still a big part of his reading experience. Our bodies don’t just go away, despite all the screens we surround ourselves with. There is no question that sensory habits transform us just as we transform them, as Barbara Mittler appropriately observes in her epilogue to the volume, but often in inventive and unforeseen ways. There is always more to study, always more to sense.


[1] Geaney, Jane. On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).

[2] The role that odor plays in creating and sustaining cultural hierarchies was emphasized by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott in their joint monograph Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[3] Hsu, Elisabeth. “Tactility and the Body in Early Chinese Medicine.” Science in Context 18, no. 1 (2005): 7-34.

[4] Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2022).

[5] Yu, Shuenn-Der 余舜德, ed., Ti wu ruwei: wu yu shentigan de yanjiu 體物入微/ 物與身體感的研究 (Body/object nuances: research on material things and bodily sensations). (Taipei: National Tsing-hua University Press, 2008).

Literary Sensory Studies, Urban Spacetime & Memory Knitwear

My first monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria 2022) is coming to a library near you! So I guess it’s only polite that I introduce you to one another.

The book is all about sensory engagements between body and city, so I’ve divided it into three sections:

  1. SKELETON: theoretical foundations, literary spacetime, alternative sensoria, and triangular comparisons.
  2. CORPUS: the literary analyses, thematically organised around extended sensory organs into 6 chapters.
  3. EXCRETIONS: analytical comparisons, temporal typologies, and concluding remarks.

Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City

I begin by presenting the idea that the rapid and violent restructuring of cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai from the 1990s onwards affects the way we think about space and time: “When entire building blocks are here today and gone tomorrow, or vice versa, space starts to shift and entangle itself with time as the elusive silhouettes of memory gain a new urgency and begin to shape how spatial reality is perceived.”

So I argue that we need to analyse urban spacetime as a unified concept and discuss some of the ways this has been done (from Bakhtin’s chronotopes to Elana Gomel’s impossible topologies) and could be done.

I also introduce the term time-space (inspired by Doreen Massey and Kevin Lynch) to designate discrete chunks of spacetime, such as “my shabby home-office on a February morning in 2022” or “the illuminated Shanghai Bund on his 103rd birthday.”

I extoll the approach that I call literary sensory studies, which is follows in footsteps of Cai Biming’s take on body-sensations (身体感) as well as sensory studies scholars’ call to examine and expand the traditional fivefold sensorium, but from the vantage point of literary analysis. Fictional narrative has a wonderful capacity for highlighting the cross- and multisensory foundation of almost all sensory experiences, as well as imagining and describing forth sensations of pain, hunger, temperature, and selfhood that are not part of the conventional sensorium.

Finally, I talk about the creative aspects of memory and use the metaphor of “memory knitwear” to highlight that “each time you rip up the fabric and reknit it following the same pattern, the result will be subtly different, paralleling the process of opening, reconfiguring, and re-storing memories described by neurobiology.”

Part I. Skeleton
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works
Part II. Corpus
Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City Chapter
4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia Chapter
5. The Ear: Melody of Language Chapter
6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City Chapter
7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors Chapter
8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams
Part III. Excretions
Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms
The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

ICAS Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade

The IBP was originally launched to bring a focus to academic publications on Asia; to increase their worldwide visibility, and to encourage a further interest in the world of Asian Studies. Organised every two years, together with the ICAS conference, the IBP has grown from a small experiment, to one of the largest book prizes of its kind. Along the way, we expanded to include, in addition to the English Book and Dissertation prizes, prizes for publications in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade for English-language dissertation in the Humanities

AUTHOR: Astrid Møller-Olsen

TITLE: Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction

Lund University, 2020

This dissertation investigates the narrative mechanisms and imagery that Sinophone fiction uses to narrate complex human experiences that were rooted in space, time and memory. It breaks new ground in engaging with sensory paradigms to show how this fiction creates civic histories.

See the other IBP 2021 English Language Edition – Humanities winners here.

Seven Senses of the City

On Tuesday January 21st I defended my doctoral dissertation “Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction” at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden.

defenseIn Sweden, the defense is a public event, a critical dialogue between the doctoral candidate (me in this instance) and an external opponent (the wonderful prof. Jie Lu from University of the Pacific).

After a short apology that my work (despite ostensibly constituting a multisensory approach to the study of memory and literature) did not include any perfume sniff pads, CD soundtracks or an eatable book cover, prof. Lu graciously introduced the main arguments and contributions of my dissertation. This took care of the first half hour.

happy drProf. Lu then asked me several critical questions to do with possible incongruities or alternative paths my research might have taken, producing a very rich and fruitful discussion of another hour. Finally the three esteemed scholars of the examining committee, Prof. Lena Rydholm from Uppsala Uni, senior lecturer Martin Svensson Ekström and prof. Rikard Schönström, presented briefly their comments on the dissertation and we all went out to await their decision.

In short, they liked it a lot and awarded me my doctoral degree and we all had sparkly wine or sparkly apple cider (and I had a beer) and hooray what a day.

Below, you will find a painfully short abstract of what is really a 260 pages long analytical kaleidoscope that took me more than four years to complete:

20200128_104017[1]What happens when the city you live in changes over night? When the streets and neighborhoods that form the material counterpart to your mental soundtrack of memory suddenly cease to exist? The rapidly changing cityscapes of Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai form an environment of urban flux that causes such questions to surface in literary texts.

In this dissertation, I engage with themes of scented nostalgia, flavors in fiction, walking as method, literary cartography, the melody of language, gendered cityscapes, metafictional dreams and rhythmic senses of time to study how contemporary cities change the way we think about time, space and memory.



Cannibals and May Fourth at 100

As most of you will know, this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth or New Culture Movement in Chinese history. I was fortunate enough to be invited to two Swedish celebrations of the centennial with each its animated discussion of the movement’s legacy.

The first was held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in Stockholm in September. Our two-day symposium was organised by Torbjörn Lodén, Lena Rydholm and Fredrik Fällman and included addresses from Xu Youyu 徐友渔, Vera Schwarcz, Zhang Longxi 張隆溪, Jae Woo Park 朴宰雨, Bonnie S. McDougall, Jyrki Kallio, Monika Gänssbauer, Qin Hui 秦晖, Wang Ning, Erik Mo Welin, Ming Dong Gu, Liu Jiafeng and myself.

Vera Schwarcz and Monika Gänssbauer

Zhang Longxi considered classical Chinese and European literary theory comparatively through the shared understanding of art as a product of, if not pain, then adversity in some form or other. He exemplified this through an examination of the image of the oyster, whose beautiful pearl is a product of the presence of a hard grain of sand in its soft interior.

Bonnie McDougall presented an original addition to our understanding of literary censorship as something that is not only political but also be aesthetic. By comparing Lu Xun’s published correspondence with Xu Guangping to the original letters, she was able to show that (contrary to how their relationship is presented in the version revised for publication) in the uncensored letters, Xu comes across as the more assertive and the one taking the initiative.

Ming Dong Gu, Wang Ning, Jyrki Kallio

In October, we had a smaller symposium in Uppsala, where Mingwei Song presented his inspiring reading of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary as a work of science fiction and traced Lu’s legacy of curing cultural ailments through literature to contemporary writers such as Han Song and Liu Cixin.

On both occasions, I presented my work on man-eating as a contemporary motif that has developed from Lu Xun’s use of various types of cannibalism as a way of criticising feudal society, over Yan Lianke and Mo Yan’s narrative invocations of vampirism and “meat-boys” to criticise political and economic corruption, to the representation of mega-cities as anthropophagus superstructures in contemporary urban fiction.

I specifically analysed the chapter “Swallow and Spit” (吞吐) from Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹 and Hon Lai Chu’s 韓麗珠 double novel A Dictionary of Two Cities 《雙城辭典》 from 2012, in which urban existence is represented through an alimentary vocabulary, with machines that “eat” coins, and pedestrians who are “eaten by the crowd.” In their fictional world, sexual intercourse becomes an act of “devouring” while babies are “vomited” out and education is seen as a process of digestion, where “raw” children enter, and processed citizens are excreted.

While certain themes of the New Culture Movement are still alive and thriving today, contemporary global society presents a changed environment that enable and demand writers to rediscover, reinvent and revolutionize modern motifs in new and enlightening ways.

Literary Sensory Studies at ACCL Changsha 2019

This year’s conference for the Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature will take place at Hunan Normal University in Changsha July 17-19. Together with eminent scholars Michelle Yeh of UC Davis and Melinda Pirazzoli of University of Bologna, I’m hosting a panel on Sensory Literary Studies.

2096272747_cfc8b757eb_b‘What is that?’ you may well ask… Defining sensory studies, anthropologist David Howes writes that ”sensory studies involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture. It challenges the monopoly that the discipline of psychology has long exercised over the study of the senses and sense perception by foregrounding the sociality of sensation” (Howes 2013).

What I should like to do, is apply some of the insights from this growing field of research to the study of literature as an important cultural practice where sensory vocabulary and concepts are codified and challenged.

14761272204_9b31c9166b_bToday, the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies encourages us to acknowledge how “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” and to think that senses are “not simply passive receptors. They are interactive, both with the world and each other” (Howes 2013). By comparing culturally and historically diverse sensory modes and codes, as well as seeking to include internal senses such as sense of pain (nociception), of one’s own muscles and organs (proprioception) and temperature (thermoception), researchers are challenging the conventional pentagonal sensorium.

vintage-eye-examination-posterIn this panel, we want to continue the sensory discussion in the literary arena; to think and talk about the ways in which Sinophone fiction and poetry can portray, disrupt and re-conceptualise sensory experience. Our aim is to start an academic conversation about the possibility of ‘Literary Sensory Studies’ and suggest some of the interesting and fruitful paths such a subfield might take. By bringing together sensory analyses of classical poetry, modernist literature and contemporary fiction, we hope to show the concept’s wide-ranging applicability in terms of literary scholarship.

A Rainy Day in Shanghai

During spring 2017, I spent three wonderful months in Shanghai on a research exchange with Fudan University, which consisted mainly of buying a load of books, reading and meeting people and, last but not least, of walking around the city, absorbing all sensory input to my heart’s content.

As literary researchers, we are in grave danger of becoming armchair Sinologists because our entire field of study is brought to us through text: We can access it anytime from anywhere. So once in a while it’s worth the effort to get out there and experience first hand the smell of steaming baozi, the call of street peddlers among honking cars, the vista of the Huangpujiang and the feel of heavy spring rain that we otherwise only read about.

As you can see from this short film, Shanghai’s cityscape is an endearing mix of new and old, Chinese and European, marked by ubiquitous construction sites as well as the more benign Chinese parasol trees (wutongshu 梧桐树). While aggressive urbanisation is rapidly changing, and to some extend deforming, the city every day, examples of old lilong (里弄) lanes and unique Shanghai style architecture still remain to rejoice in.

Without falling into the trap of Shanghai nostalgia, which tend to idealise 1930s Shanghai as a utopian metropolis characterised by the effortless blending of East and West (in reality, the few percent of the population who were Europeans and Americans lived isolated in their own enclaves, while the considerable number of people from other Asian countries, who called Shanghai their home, are largely ignored in this nostalgic narrative), I still attest that the material cityscape of Shanghai itself can be viewed as an utterly enjoyable living display of historical and contemporary cultural diversity, conflict and curiosity.