The Politics of Smell: Language, Olfactory Metaphor, and Mao’s Revolution

Lecture Abstract

Language, rhetoric and discourse played a pivotal role in the Chinese Communist revolution. A wide range of techniques and strategies of revolutionary linguistic engineering was developed during the Mao era, and a common foundation of such techniques was what may be called “the emotional roots of political power.” This paper provides a case study of the largely overlooked sensory dimension of political language and discourse in Mao China. It will demonstrate the ways in which rhetoric references to stench and fragrance engaged with emotions, forging the bond between members of the discourse community of Communist China at the biological/corporal level. How was sensory perception employed by propaganda to internalise political doctrines? How did the imageries of the fragrant and the foul serve to stimulate admiration and worship, and to instigate agitation and hatred? Adopting the keywords approach initiated by Raymond Williams, this paper studies such smell-related keywords and phrases as “the political sense of smell” (政治嗅覺), a range of scatological utterances (fart 屁, shit 屎, muck 糞), “to struggle against/condemn somebody until s/he stinks” (鬥臭, 批臭), “fragrant breeze” (香風), and “fragrant blossoms/poisonous weeds” (香花/毒草). In doing so, I explore the themes of revolutionary neurosis, rudeness, ruthlessness, the polarization of love and hatred as the necessary ingredients of revolutionary emotions and discourses.

Graduate Seminar

Dr. Huang will also be offering a seminar for graduate students on March 20th on the topic of “Sense and Sensibility: Understanding the Sensory Revolution in Modern China.” Interested students should contact Prof. Christopher Rea at for details and registration.

About the Speaker

Dr. Xuelei Huang is a Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include Chinese cinema, media, as well as social and cultural history of modern China. She has published on Chinese cinema and popular culture, including Shanghai Filmmaking: Crossing Borders, Connecting to the Globe, 1922-1938 (Brill 2014) and essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Twentieth-Century China, and Modern Asian Studies. She is currently writing a book entitled “The Cesspool and the Rose Garden: The Social Life of Smell in Modern China, 1840s–1960s.”