OLFACTION AND XIANG Guest Lecture by Paolo Santangelo
A short presentation of researches and methods will introduce Paolo Santangelo's theoretical premises and hypotheses on cultural "contruction" of emotions and sensations, and their important social role. A synthesis on anthropological meanings of olfaction and odours will follow. Some reflections will focus on the analysis of the use of the term xiang 香, "incense", "fragrance", "beauty" on the basis of about 300 selected examples. The occurrences of the main terms and their meanings will be commented. The most common meaning is incense, which, disclosing the way of communication between the human being and the supernatural world, is used for religious purposes and ritual ceremonies, the worship of divinities and supernatural powers, or the funerary ceremonies for the defunct, an ancestors, a revered saint. Incense has also an important role in the rituals for solemnise a pledge, a pact of brotherhood, friendship, marriage, any oath of alliance. Thus incense is mainly the manifestation of a religious attitude, and can also be indicative for the charisma of a monk or a magician, as well as the volume of affairs of a monastery: the efficacy in answering to the requests of the devotees and the miraculous power (ling靈) demonstrated by the divinity or the saint are proportional to the fame and wealth of the sacred place. As for the second main meaning, perfume, it refers to a relatively large amount of fragrances, some of them of vegetal or floral origin, some of supernatural character (from immortals, spirits and gods). In case of fragrance coming from females' bodies, it is evident that at the same time their aroma reflects their charm. In the "Peony Pavilion", the sanctification of love-passion let the loved Liniang's body take the place of a saint's relics, and thus she dies and then resurrects with her whole integer and fragrant body, and the mixture of sacred and eroticism is expressed by "heavenly fragrance", tianxiang. Analogously several female immortals in Liaozhai have a rare fragrance which derives from their supernatural condition, while it is evident that their fragrance reflects the desire and admiration that they provoke in their lovers or in men who deal with them. The material is not very rich of information on the kind of religiosity and the characters of the worship. However, a few elements are very interesting for understanding the religious phenomenon. Although the religious phenomenon in China has characters different from other areas, and the ritual aspects are often dominant, we can notice both inner fervour and a kind of personal relationship with gods and spirits. We can understand how the religious attitude is expressed in its consolatory function, devotion for begging favours, worshipping the supernatural entity, concentrating in an act that is the manifestation of an inner state. The metaphor of the incense burning in heart (心香奉佛) expresses the deep attitude of the devotee. The ceremony centered in burning and offering incense is often accompanied by other acts, like purification, sacrifices, prayers, and opens a special dimension in the inner experience of the devotee.