Deodorizing China: Odour, ordure, and colonial (dis)order in Shanghai, 1840s–1940s

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Smell is deeply meaningful to humans. Often considered elusive, ephemeral, and volatile, it has long been excluded from scholarly accounts on culture and history. This paper explores this lower sense and the roles it played in the historical process of modernisation in China. Through a close look at the efforts made by Western colonial administration to deodorise Shanghai and diverse Chinese reactions, this paper argues that smell constituted a hidden site where the dynamics of power relations were played out. Smell also opened up a window to showcase modernity’s power and ambivalence. The first part of this paper looks at how China smelled under the Western nose against the historical background of the rising consciousness of smell, sanitation and civility in Europe beginning in the eighteenth century. Part Two examines the ways in which the British administration applied olfactory norms of the modern West to the end of taming Chinese stench. Part Three provides a case study of ordure treatment in order to show how ambivalence arose in this modern smellscape and why.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1092–1122
JournalModern Asian Studies
Issue number3
Early online date9 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - May 2016


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