Wafting incense and heavenly foods

the importance of smell in Chinese religion

  • Shawn Arthur Wake Forest University
Keywords: smell, China, temples, incense, devotion


The most notable impressions of religious sites and festivals in China often relate to how smells of burning incense and cooking foods help to create their special atmospheres. This may be because the Chinese word for ‘worship’ includes the order to light incense to the gods. By examining the importance of smells to a Chinese religious experience, this article analyses how scents heighten and shape people’s memories and emotions, as well as helping to foster the ‘hot and lively’ social aspects of China’s temples and religious festivals.

Author Biography

Shawn Arthur, Wake Forest University

Shawn Arthur is an assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Religions at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA. His first book, Early Daoist Dietary Practices: Examining Ways to Health and Longevity (Lexington Books, 2013), focuses on a fifth-century Daoist text that contains recipes for achieving immortality. His current research focuses on contemporary popular religion in China and how lay practices and ideas can contribute to our understandings of 'religion' from non-official perspectives. 


Administrator (2009) Burning Joss Sticks and Worshipping Spirits. FYSK Daoist Culture Centre Database. Retrieved on 25 January 2017 from http://en.daoinfo.org/wiki/Burning_Joss_Sticks_and_Worshipping_Spirits.

Arthur, S. (2018) Contemporary Religions in China. New York: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429443596

Arthur, S. and Mair, V. (2017) East Asian historical traditions of well-being. In R. J. Estes and J. Sirgy (eds) The History of Well-Being Throughout the World 59–82. Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-39101-4_3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-39101-4_3

Avadhani, M. M. N., Selvaraj, C. I., Rajasekharan, P. E. and Tharachand, C. (2013) The sweetness and bitterness of sweet flag [Acorus calamus L.] – a review. Research Journal of Pharmaceutical, Biological, and Chemical Sciences 4(2): 598–610.

Bazin, N. (2013) Fragrant ritual offerings in the art of Tibetan Buddhism. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Series 3, 23(1): 31–8. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186312000697. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186312000697

Blake, C. F. (2011) Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. https://doi.org/10.21313/hawaii/9780824835323.001.0001. DOI: https://doi.org/10.21313/hawaii/9780824835323.001.0001

Chan, K. Y. (1989) Joss stick manufacturing: a study of a traditional industry in Hong Kong. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 29: 94–120.

Chau, A. Y. (2006) Miraculous Response – Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Chau, A. Y. (2008) The sensorial production of the social. Ethnos 73(4): 485–504. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141840802563931. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00141840802563931

Chen, Y. (2013) The perfume culture of China and Taiwan: a personal report. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Series 3, 23(1): 127–30. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186313000059. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186313000059

Chiang, K.-C. and Liao, C.-M. (2006) Heavy incense burning in temples promotes exposure risk from airborne PMs and carcinogenic PAHs. Science of the Total Environment 372: 64–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2006.08.012. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2006.08.012

Classen, C., Howes, D. and Synnott, A. (1994) Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. New York: Routledge.

Clements, A. (2014) Divine scents and presence. In M. Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses 46–59. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Corbett, J. M. (2006) Scents of identity: organisation studies and the cultural conundrum of the nose. Culture and Organization 12(3): 221–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/14759550600871469. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14759550600871469

Dannaway, F. R. (2010) ‘Strange fires, weird smokes and psychoactive combustibles: entheogens and incense in ancient traditions. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 42(4): 485–97. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2010.10400711. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2010.10400711

Doolittle, J. (1870) Ethnology: sketches of life in China. Incense manufacture, Chinese servants. Phrenological Journal of Science and Health (1870–1911) 50(4): 236.

Feng, H. (2011) Politeness (keqi): the fragrance of Chinese communication. China Media Research 7(4): 53–60.

Harvey, G. (2012) History of Animism (Part 3/8). Interview with Daniel Foor of Voices of the Earth. Retrieved on 25 January 2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnJVwyjRBng.

Harvey, G. (2013) Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life. New York: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315729572

Hashim, Y. Z., Kerr, P. G., Abbas, P. and Mohd Salleh, H. (2016) Aquilaria spp. (agarwood) as source of health beneficial compounds: a review of traditional use, phytochemistry and pharmacology. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 189: 331–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2016.06.055. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2016.06.055

Henshaw, V. (2013) Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. Florence: Taylor and Francis. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203072776

Henshaw, V. (2014) Welcome to the smellscape. New Scientist 7: 28–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0262-4079(14)61111-8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0262-4079(14)61111-8

Jackson, D. D. (2011) Scents of place: the dysplacement of a First Nations community in Canada. American Anthropologist 113(4): 606–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01373.x. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01373.x

Jochim, C. (1990) Flowers, fruit, and incense only: elite versus popular in Taiwan’s religion of the Yellow Emperor. Modern China 16(1): 3–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/009770049001600101. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/009770049001600101

Jung, D. (2013) The cultural biography of agarwood – perfumery in Eastern Asia and the Asian neighborhood. Journal of Royal Asiatic Society Series 3, 23(1): 103–25. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186313000047. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186313000047

Lap, A. T., Yu, I. T., Qiu, H., Au, J. S. and Wang, X.-R. (2011) A case-referent study of lung cancer and incense smoke, smoking, and residential radon in Chinese men. Environmental Health Perspectives 119(11): 1641–6. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002790. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002790

Lin, T.-C., Krishnaswamy, G. and Chi, D. S. (2008) Incense smoke: clinical, structural, and molecular effects on airway disease. Clinical and Molecular Allergy 6: 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-7961-6-3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-7961-6-3

Low, K. E. Y. (2009) Scent and Scent-sibilities: Smell and Everyday Life Experiences (1). Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

McHugh, J. (2011) Seeing scents: methodological reflection on the intersensory perception of aromatics in South Asian religions. History of Religions 51(2): 156–77. https://doi.org/10.1086/660930. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/660930

Milburn, O. (2016) Aromas, scents, and spices: olfactory culture in China before the arrival of Buddhism. Journal of the American Oriental Society 136(3): 441–64. https://doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.136.3.0441. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.136.3.0441

Miyoshi, T., Ito, M., Kitayama, T., Isomori, S. and Yamashita, F. (2013) Sedative effects of inhaled benzylacetone and structural features contributing to its activity. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin 36(9): 1474–81. https://doi.org/10.1248/bpb.b13-00250. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1248/bpb.b13-00250

Moeran, B. (2009) Making scents of smell: manufacturing and consuming incense in Japan. Human Organization 68(4): 439–50. https://doi.org/10.17730/humo.68.4.q570w7g1684u412t. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17730/humo.68.4.q570w7g1684u412t

Mohagheghzadeh, A., Faridi, P., Shams-Ardakani, M. and Ghasemi, Y. (2006) Medicinal smokes: review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108: 161–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2006.09.005. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2006.09.005

Navasumrit, P., Arayasiri, M., Hiang, O. M., Leechawengwongs, M., Promvijit, J., Choonvisase, S., Chantchaemsai, S., Nakngam, N., Mahidol, M. and Ruchirawat, M. (2008) Potential health effects of exposure to carcinogenic compounds in incense smoke in temple workers. Chemico-Biological Interactions 173(1): 19–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbi.2008.02.004. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbi.2008.02.004

Peace Rhind, J. (2013) Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Rahim, H. (2005) Incense. In M. Eliade (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion 7: 161–163. London: Collier Macmillan.

Rasmussen, S. (1999) Making better ‘scents’ in anthropology: aroma in Tuareg sociocultural systems and the shaping of ethnography. Anthropological Quarterly 72(2): 55–73. https://doi.org/10.2307/3317964. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3317964

Reinarz, J. (2014) Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5406/illinois/9780252034947.001.0001

Rodaway, P. (2002) Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense, and Place. London: Taylor and Francis. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203082546

Seow, W. J. and Lan, Q. (2016) Domestic incense use and lung cancer in Asia: a review. Reviews in Environmental Health 31(1): 155–8. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2015-0060. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2015-0060

Siripanich, S., Siriwong, W., Keawrueang, P., Borjan, M. and Robson, M. (2014) Incense and joss sticks making in small household factories, Thailand. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 5(3): 137–45.

Staub, P. O., Geck, M. S. and Weckerle, C. S. (2011) Incense and ritual plant use in Southwest China: a case study among the Bai in Shaxi. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7(43): 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-7-43. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-7-43

ter Haar, B. J. (1999) Teaching with incense. Studies of Central and East Asian Religions 11: 1–14.

Yao, X. and Zhao, Y. (2010) Chinese Religion: A Contextual Approach. New York: Continuum.

Zavidovskaya, E. A. (2012) Deserving divine protection: religious life in contemporary rural Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces. St Petersburg Annual of Asian and African Studies 1: 179–97.

How to Cite
Arthur, S. (2018). Wafting incense and heavenly foods. Body and Religion, 2(2), 144-166. https://doi.org/10.1558/bar.36487

Most read articles by the same author(s)

Obs.: This plugin requires at least one statistics/report plugin to be enabled. If your statistics plugins provide more than one metric then please also select a main metric on the admin's site settings page and/or on the journal manager's settings pages.