“Harnessing the stenches of waste: Human bodies as environmental sensors in contemporary China” in Aromas of Asia: Exchanges, Histories, Threats

Document Type

Chapter in a Book

Publication Date

Fall 2023


A uniquely powerful marker of ethnic, gender, and class identities, scent can also overwhelm previously constructed boundaries and transform social-sensory realities within contexts of environmental degradation, pathogen outbreaks, and racial politics. This innovative multidisciplinary volume critically examines olfaction in Asian societies with the goal of unlocking its full potential as an analytical frame and lived phenomenon.

Featuring contributions from international scholars with deep knowledge of the region, this volume conceptualizes Asia and its borders as a dynamic, transnationally connected space of olfactory exchange. Using examples such as trade along the Silk Road; the diffusion of dharmic religious traditions out of South Asia; the waves of invasion, colonization, and forced relocation that shaped the history of the continent; and other “sensory highways” of contact, the contributors break down essentializing olfactory tropes and reveal how scent functions as a category of social and moral boundary-marking and boundary-breaching within, between, and beyond Asian societies. Smell shapes individual, collective, and state-based memory, as well as discourses about heritage and power. As such, it suggests a pervasive and powerful intimacy that contributes to our understanding of the human condition, mobility, and interconnection.

In addition to the editors, the contributors to this volume include Khoo Gaik Cheng, Jean Duruz, Qian Jia, Shivani Kapoor, Adam Liebman, Lorenzo Marinucci, Peter Romaskiewicz, Saki Tanada, Aubrey Tang, and Ruth E. Toulson.