What does Chinese New Year Smell Like?

13 Feb 2024 | Research & Business Knowledge

Article by ICG member Felicia Schwartz, China Insight

Having worked on several olfactory projects in China this year, scent has been on my mind. As we are approaching the Chinese New Year I could not help wondering: what is the scent of the lunar new-year festival? We are quick to associate a host of scents with Christmas, the Western equivalent of China’s seasonal holiday, from cinnamon and clove to gingerbread and the heady scent of mulled wine or hot chocolate. These scents are wafting throughout retail, food venues and are reflected in popular culture (anyone seen Wonka in December?) In fact, notwithstanding local and personal variations, we have established a common virtual scent catalogue for a range of occasions and concepts like “Christmas”, “Freshness”, or “Romance.” These scents are no less powerful than visual symbols or auditory cues.  But they do not necessarily travel across cultures.

Huang Xuelei’s fascinating talk at SOAS on her book, Scents of China, revealed a complex history of scent. It painted an imperial past, where the upper echelons of society had a very sophisticated scent vocabulary (the 18C novel Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, refers to a burgeoning incense culture including “agarwood crutches”, “red musk wrist-beads” and “spice-aroma incense sachets”.) But the era of turmoil heralding the emergence of a modern China did away with this historical plethora of scent. After a gingerly stab at exploring modern fragrances in 1920’s Shanghai, Chairman Mao positively politicized scent often referring to the stench of (bourgeois) enemies whilst outlawing perfume.  The opening of China in the 1980’s thus found China somewhat scent-free and susceptible to an onslaught of products from the West.

Fast-forward a few decades to a self-confident China where Gen’Zrs are looking to the past to define their present and future Chinese-ness. The current fragrance trend (worth 2,5 billion USD in 2022, a number forecast by Euromonitor to nearly double by 2025) sees half of GenZ’s wearing scent daily and home fragrance exploding during and after Covid.

Fragrances are strongly associated with feelings and memories, so I was interested to delve into the imaginary and scent-associations of fellow Chinese experts at this emotionally charged time of the year.

Author Huang conjured the Chinese daffodil (shuixian 水仙), and the wintersweet, (lamei 腊梅), which blooms in the winter. For her, both these flowers emit a subtle yet sweet scent, carrying the spirit of winter sunshine, warmth, and hope, conjuring memories of home and carefree childhood times. Documentary maker Gu Siyi evokes the sweet aroma of eight treasure rice and associates this period with the lingering after-scent of firecrackers and that of the dry, fresh, invigorating scent of cold air she remembers from the Beijing of her childhood.

There is no wonder that domestic fragrance brands are especially successful in tapping into this rich well of culture. Chinese beauty brand Pechoin created a special Chinese New Year gift set a few years back featuring cold creams scented respectively to conjure the smell of fireworks, the fragrance of the iconic red envelope (hongbao 红包), and the aromas and flavours of a familial reunion banquet. Current darling fragrance brand To Summer links the scent of citrus and dried tangerine to memories of reunions and sharing mandarins during the Chinese New Year. It builds its brand on a commitment to restoring Eastern botanical scents and taps into the Guochao trend by dishing up Chinese tradition in an ultra-contemporary style.

Another local star, Scent Library, is known for products dipping into the recent nostalgia for childhood memories. Popular lines include White Rabbit, a collaboration with the ubiquitous Chinese milk candy brand. With young local consumers looking to express their taste and personality, niche brands are flourishing and popular scent directions are ever-evolving.

The year of the dragon is especially laden in symbolism, with the dragon being the most powerful of the zodiac animals. Insight specialist Wang Ying Ying associates this year with the scents of wood and ambergris which respectively connote strength and power, qualities associated with the Dragon. Huang agrees that this year calls for a bold statement. For her, spicy and citrus notes exude the confidence and strength associated with the dragon’s strong “yang” energy. Interestingly, she sees a ‘gender neutral’ scent, the dragon not being gendered and its positive characteristics being attributable to all genders. This would sit well with a market trend that sees high-end gender-neutral scents as a subcategory with the highest compound annual growth rate (2016-2021, Euromonitor).

Brands have not missed the opportunity to make an impression. Of course not every brand has the luck of Jo Malone, known as Zu Ma Long (祖马龙) in Chinese, with its last character literally being “dragon”. Yet international and local brands alike feted the year of the dragon with culturally resonating new launches. Jo Malone’s new Dragon-year fragrances contain precious ingredients like myrrh and red hibiscus and are contained in luxurious gold and red bottles.

Slightly more imaginative, French Fragrance brand Diptyque has teamed up with Chinese calligraphy artist Ao Hei to spruce up its packaging with ink strokes and gold foil. The limited-edition fragrance “Diptyque Paper,” is made with white musk, rice scent, mimosa, and golden woody notes, evoking the delicate scent of ink when it touches paper.

Meanwhile Swedish fragrance and accessory brand Byredo honours the CNY tradition of gathering and feasting with a limited-edition collection of homewares. Co-designed with Shanghai-based studio KAE, the collectibles are handcrafted in Jingdezhen, China’s ceramic Mecca, and the curvilinear forms pay homage to classical Chinese silhouettes as well as echo Byredo’s iconic perfume bottle.

Huang summarises that Perfume, as a purely sensory product, needs to cater to the synesthetic nature of our sensory perception and thus creating a successful perfume is a complex endeavour encompassing scent, story, concept, and associated imagery. She underlines that Chinese culture has an especially rich repertoire of such image-scent-story associations anchored in poetry, literature, theatre and the visual arts. This ancient repertoire, as well as a more recent realm of nostalgia created by the rapid change seen in Modern China, have yet to be fully tapped into by the perfume industry and constitute a productive area to explore.