Wafting Incense and Heavenly Foods

The Importance of Smell in Chinese Religion


  • Shawn Arthur Wake Forest University




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. 


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