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Reading the novel through odours : an investigation into Chinese olfactory aesthetics using The Story of the Stone as a case study Li, Haoyue

Abstract

By taking the mid-eighteenth Chinese novel Story of the Stone as a case study, this thesis aims to demonstrate that the concept of a literary “olfactory aesthetics” is a single object with two aspects: (1) authors employ odours as a xiefa 寫法 (narrative method) to add metaphorical, symbolic, and allegorical implications in fictional works; (2) readers (including late-imperial Chinese literary critics, as well as modern readers like me) employ odours as a dufa 讀法 (reading method) in interpreting olfactory narrations in early literary writings. Following an overview of several odour-related dufa in late-imperial commentarial history, chapter one introduces its odour-oriented dufa, including odour symbolism, olfactory division, odour distribution, odour cartography, and odour coordinates. Chapter two explores three ideological systems in this novel through examining the symbolic significance of odours and the mechanism of point of view in developing a framework of olfactory division. Chapter three uses odour distribution and odour coordinates to read the author’s mapping of Grand Prospect Garden. I argue that odours can serve as an approach to writing and reading fictional works, since (1) defining odours relies less on the defined characters’ “biological” odours, but more as the symbolic extension of their invisible essence such as characteristics, temperaments, and virtues. (2) The division between fragrant and foul-smelling odours often matches the definer’s evaluation of “the self” and “the other.” The characters in this novel divide along olfactory lines to evaluate others, closely matching the three separate yet linked ideological spheres long seen by scholars as central to the novel’s meanings. That is, the immortals’ play with real and unreal, the orthodox Confucian concern with moral obligations, and the cult of qing among the garden-world characters. (3) Odour overlap (and contrast) all match the close (and far) relationship between the occupants in this novel, as revealed in a four-character Chinese idiom, qiwei xiangtou 氣味相投 (people with similar personality and aspirations share the same odours and tastes). (4) Odours usually appear as symbolic signals of extraordinary experience, generate strong sensory atmospheres, and affectively map different spaces as overlapping zones in the literary imagination.

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