Sensing China:
Modern Transformations of Sensory Culture

Edited by Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang

Reviewed by Astrid Møller-Olsen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2023)

Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang, eds. Sensing China: Modern Transformations of Sensory Culture London: Routledge 2022. xiii + 297 pp. ISBN 9781032008776 (cloth).

The ancient pages of the book before me are rumpled by water damage, the lower right corner of each page is stained brown and all but torn off, it smells musty and would feel sticky were I allowed to touch it. This object is a product of repeated multisensory reading sessions. It is a volume of choral sheet music from the European Middle Ages and its pages are marked by the audible breath of the singers, as well as by the touch of their fingers, hastily turning the page in time for the next verse. Holding it in their hands, they viewed the sheet music with their eyes and translated it into sound with their brains and vocal cords. The temperature and moisture of the room and the bodies in it merged with the sounds and became a visual imprint, a tactile trace of a melody heard long ago.

As this description of one object from the small but wondrous exhibition “Sensational Books” (2022) at the Weston Library in Oxford shows, the boundaries between sensory categories—and between physical and social aspects of sensation—are as permeable as they are practical. What is “a sense” really? How many are there, and might they not differ between periods, cultures, bodies, and social contexts? These are some of the questions posed by contemporary sensory studies, a field that combines sociological, anthropological, and historical approaches to diversify and nuance our understanding of what sensation means, has meant, and can mean. It is highly fitting that Sensing China, a new and very welcome addition to this cross-disciplinary area of scholarship, begins with a deconstruction of the very term “sense.”

It is this flexible approach to multi- and cross-sensory realms that Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang instill in the reader by beginning the introductory chapter to their edited volume with a quote from Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 that includes the lines “colour can appear to embody temperature, sound embody form, heat and cold have weight and smell solidity” (1). To Qian’s poetic rumination on synaesthesia (通感), Wu and Huang add that their own objective is to “offer a critical investigation of a variety of sensory phenomena, representations, and discourses in Chinese cultural history, and of modern transformations of sensory culture in particular” (3). With a mind firmly focused on sensory collaboration, transformation, and context, rather than sensory systematics, the reader can begin to explore the manifold methodological and disciplinary perspectives in the following eleven chapters.

The volume is chronologically arranged in four parts—Part 1: Understanding the Senses in Traditional Culture; Part 2: Reconfiguring the Senses and Modern Sensibility; Part 3: Socialist Corporeality, Sensorium and Memory; and Part 4: Senses, Media and Postmodernity—covering sensory culture in China from as early as 500 BCE to well into the 2000s (followed by an epilogue). This makes it easier for readers interested in specific periods to find their way. However, when reading all the chapters (and I encourage you to do so, because insights are not limited to historical facts but also include innovative methodologies and inspiring analyses), shared themes surface. Although a cursory inspection of the table of contents seem to reveal that many of the chapters focus on individual senses, most of them end up demonstrating that no sense works in isolation and that sensation is always social and quite often emotional as well. Instead of proceeding through the chapters in order, below I survey the chapters with an eye toward their shared themes and concerns, as well as highlighting key arguments and insights; to save space, I refer directly to the authors rather than the full title of each chapter.

Jane Geaney, author of the pioneering On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought,[1] reminds us that the notion of “a sense” as a universal concept is the first obstacle we need to dismantle to gain a deeper understanding of sensory experiences, thoughts, and transformations across time. She begins by destabilizing any easy translation of the Chinese term 官 guan as “senses that inform and/or confuse the heart-mind (心 xin)” and goes on to “reassess the very idea of an early Chinese concept of ‘sense’” (19). Geaney shows that early texts were not very systematic in their use of the term guan and that although guan sometimes substitutes for specific sensory organs such as the eye or the ear, i.e., the physical forms by which we grasp the world, it is also used for less conventional “senses” such as happiness, form, name, and more, leading her to conclude that “we cannot infer that guan replaces a general category term like ‘sense’” (20). In short, when reading early Chinese texts, we tend to treat guan as a dead metaphor when, as Geaney demonstrates, it was still very much alive and flexible.

Like Geaney, Paolo Santangelo deconstructs the notion of a “sense” and adds an important affective dimension to our understanding of sensation when he notes that the modern term ganjue 感覺 “makes no distinction between mental and physical feelings” and that “social and moral effects of the senses remain the basis of debate on senses” in Ming and Qing sources (43). Sensation, according to Santangelo, is not exclusively physical but inherently social and emotional as well. He employs this position to delve into the social aspects of scent as a marker of cultural and gendered identity that “signals the unity of the physical and social body [and] transfers ideological and social distinctions to a visceral level” (52). Xuelei Huang continues Santangelo’s exploration of the relationship between scent and identity to analyse how specific fragrances not only set social groups apart but can also act as medium through which one may live out a fantasy of belonging to another class, gender, or ethnicity through a kind of “smell-voyeurism” (81).[2]

Staying on the theme of emotions and sensory mediations, Carlos Rojas analyses mediated touch as an enhanced form of intimacy. He notes that because the sense of touch is surrounded and guarded by norms and taboos, visual mediation allows vicarious tactile interchanges where direct touch is not possible due to social convention—as between father and son in Song Dong’s 宋冬 artworks—or because of sexual normativity—as with the male lovers in Wong Kar-wai 王家衛 and Zhang Yuan’s 張元films. Shengqing Wu likewise examines the confluences between visuality and tactility in her study of how Chinese cinemagoers in the 1910s and 1920s learned a new way of kissing from the actors on the screen and went on to savor the smell and taste of the sweet (甜蜜) kiss that was the product of this multisensory mimesis. One could extend this historical survey backwards from the contemporary norms regarding men touching men that Rojas analyzes, through Wu’s description of the visual introduction of new heterosexual kissing standards in the early twentieth century, and on to premodern Chinese medicine, where, as Elisabeth Hsu has shown,[3] rules regarding who could touch the female body required diagnostics on women to be performed through the medium of a silk cord to avoid direct skin contact.

In my own work on literary sensory studies,[4] I have been inspired by the idea of whole-body sensation (身體感) proposed and developed in the anthology Body/Object Nuances: Research on Material Things and Bodily Sensations, edited by 余舜德 Yu Shuenn-Der. [5] It would have been exciting if more of the chapters in Sensing China engaged directly with the broader field of sensory studies, taking up comparisons with findings from other areas, disciplines, and periods as well as with new theories and conceptualizations of sensation.

Jie Li’s chapter stands out for its introduction of a new and radically cross-sensory concept, anchored in her literal translation of 热闹 renao (lively) as “hot noise”—a multisensory term that is “at once visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, and haptic” (202). This brilliantly conceived analytical fulcrum allows Li to examine the whole-body experience of open-air cinema in Mao-era China from a variety of different and overlapping sensory perspectives. Above all, Li shows that the physical surroundings of open-air cinema were as important as the content of the film being screened. Even when a screening was suspended due to frequent breakdowns in the mobile equipment, the canvas screen itself, blowing in the wind, became a spectacle known as “white cloth film” (205). When in motion, the sensory symphony on screen was coupled with an equally entertaining sensory disharmony off screen, consisting of shouts, bickering, and laughter from neighbors all around. The “phantom commensality” (211) of filmic feasts was accompanied by the festive smells and tastes from homemade snacks and street vendors. As Lena Henningsen shows in her chapter, partaking by proxy is a theme that continues to resurface in the “spiritual feasts” of recalling past meals during times of hunger, which is given permanence through inscription in literary texts (178).

Returning to the hot noise of open-air cinema, Li describes how the film itself was bodily produced by people on manual generators, pedalling to provide the needed electricity, and consumed not only optically (with even the visual impression bracketed by the heads of other spectators) but corporeally and socially by the crowd as well. The very nature of open-air cinema led to an “intense awareness of one’s body between the sky and earth, vulnerable to wind, rain, snow, mosquitoes, heat and cold,” while the social dimension took center stage when film screenings were used for political purposes as well as for matchmaking (215-216). The communal nature of such sensory experiences is not only of academic interest, as Xiaobing Tang argues in his chapter, they have been instrumental in transforming Chinese society. Stressing the need for historians to understand the bodily experiences as well as the material circumstances of historical subjects, he concludes that when it comes to 1930s China, “unless we truly grasp the sensory implications as well as the affective power of mass singing, our understanding of a formative stage of modern Chinese culture may remain incomplete and inadequate” (143).

In open-air cinema, the social, contextual, and collaborative aspects of sensation naturally come to the fore. However, by using a multisensory analytical term like hot noise, other researchers could tease out more subtle but equally somatic dimensions of pursuits usually viewed with a visual bias. After all, even lone reading sessions in quiet rooms are bodily practises, situated in time, space, and language—affected by expectation, mood, paratext, room temperature, hunger, ambient noise, memory, and more.

Celebrating and employing multisensory frameworks, however, is not without hazards, as two of the chapters in this volume point out. In her chapter, Laikwan Pang analyses how Maoist romantic aesthetics, despite claiming to represent the materiality of everyday life, could be “understood as anti-material and anti-corporeal” (166) because of the priority given to the abstract ideological message that the graphic bodies were there to convey. In a similar vein, Kirk Denton cautions that, although involving more senses can help museums become more than “mausoleums,” the immersive quality of sensory exhibitions risk blinding the visitor to the constructedness of the narratives on display, their selectivity, and the things that are absent from them.

Despite such possible pitfalls, the value of Sensing China and its multisensory paradigm is (at least) twofold. First, it adds a new corpus of studies from Chinese languages and cultures to the ongoing global research on sensation and the social; second, the collective method of “(re)thinking through the senses” (3) may form an exciting and fruitful framework for future engagements with material grassroots history, comparative literature, and immersive fieldwork.

Although the Weston Library exhibition did display books chewed by toddlers, most of us have stopped tasting books in such a direct way. Yet there is no denying that books are more than just visual. That is why reading with a cup of coffee on a sunny bench is not the same as reading hungrily in a library sustained only by the musty scent of old pages or reading on a tram full of teenagers because you just have to finish this book you have for review. The Weston exhibition posed the question of what the growth of e-books might do to our reading habits and to the multisensory aspects of reading. Well, a few years ago I saw a young man on a bus in Shanghai flicking at the virtual page edges of his e-reader. Clearly, tactility was still a big part of his reading experience. Our bodies don’t just go away, despite all the screens we surround ourselves with. There is no question that sensory habits transform us just as we transform them, as Barbara Mittler appropriately observes in her epilogue to the volume, but often in inventive and unforeseen ways. There is always more to study, always more to sense.

Astrid Møller-Olsen
Lund University


[1] Geaney, Jane. On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).

[2] The role that odor plays in creating and sustaining cultural hierarchies was emphasized by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott in their joint monograph Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[3] Hsu, Elisabeth. “Tactility and the Body in Early Chinese Medicine.” Science in Context 18, no. 1 (2005): 7-34.

[4] Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2022).

[5] Yu, Shuenn-Der 余舜德, ed., Ti wu ruwei: wu yu shentigan de yanjiu 體物入微/ 物與身體感的研究 (Body/object nuances: research on material things and bodily sensations). (Taipei: National Tsing-hua University Press, 2008).