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The sublime in scent: a comparative study of Japanese Kodo and Chinese incense tradition in the 21st century

Sidney C. H. Cheung (Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China)

Asian Education and Development Studies

ISSN: 2046-3162

Article publication date: 30 June 2020

Issue publication date: 23 December 2020




The sublime in scent refers to the use of language and description that excites thoughts and emotions beyond ordinary olfactory experience, and I would like to borrow this literary concept to explore the recent development of incense traditions in Japan and China from a sociocultural perspective. In order to understand how olfactory characters of incense have been verbally expressed, we can start by looking into the sublime in scent through the articulation of relevant subtle approaches since ancient times.


This paper explains how the description of scent experienced by individuals has been associated with thoughts and history and why the sublime in scent is more complicated than the aroma people can tell. The data collected for this research is mostly based on observations by participating in various events and conversations with different people.


In Japan and China, the use of incense has a long history, and relevant scent cultures have been developed not only for offerings in religious practices, but also as a kind of scent appreciation together with a poetic presentation. Again, it is important and significant to discern several interactions of incense traditions in these two countries, since the transformations became obvious in the last two decades, while Japanese Kodo participated more in international exchange, and the Chinese people's view of intangible cultural heritage has become more important in their daily social practices.


As a way of showing how the study of scent can enhance ethnographic writing and the understanding of changes in the appreciation of incense, this paper hopes to contribute to the study of art and tradition.



Cheung, S.C.H. (2021), "The sublime in scent: a comparative study of Japanese Kodo and Chinese incense tradition in the 21st century", Asian Education and Development Studies, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 95-104.



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