The Stagnant Ditch and the Politics of Deodorizing China

Convener: China Centre

Speaker: Xuelei Huang

An overarching narrative of hygiene, deodorization, and civilization has governed modern sensibilities for a few centuries. French historian Alain Corbin has termed the historical course of heightening olfactory sensitivities and strenuous efforts to deodorizing the environment an 'olfactory revolution' starting roughly in the eighteenth century in Western Europe. Deodorizing China was part and parcel of this 'revolution'. While it started as part of the colonial and nationalist projects of “modernizing” China, the social power of deodorization exceeded far beyond and made its foray into the politics of socialist China. The stagnant ditch, as both a physical existence and a trope, figured centrally in social practices and discourses on deodorizing. This paper examines two cases: Western colonial efforts in removing stagnant ponds, ditches, and drains in the 1890s and Communist projects of filling up stinking ditches in the 1950s. Stench and the trope of the stagnant ditch were employed to serve disparate political ends. But the common ground for both projects was, on the one hand, profound modern transformations in the realms of sensory perception, scientific knowledge, and conceptual reconfiguration; on the other hand, the deepest visceral fear of stench that goes beyond the boundaries between modern and pre-modern as well as colonialism and communism. This paper explores the politics and philosophy of stench, as well as its social life in modern China. 

Xuelei Huang is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Huang Xuelei studied at Fudan University (BA) and Peking University (MA) in China, and received her PhD with summa cum laude from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Before taking up her current position in Edinburgh she was a post-doctoral researcher at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, a research fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Studies in France and the International Research Centre for Cultural Studies in Vienna (IFK). She was awarded the Ruprecht Karls Prize for her PhD dissertation, and received fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation in Germany. Huang Xuelei's recent book entitled Shanghai Filmmaking: Crossing Borders, Connecting to the Globe, 1922-1938 (Brill 2014, xvi+381 pp) examines early Chinese film culture and sheds new light on the power of popular cultural production in China’s modern transformation. Her current research project focuses on a social and cultural history of smell in modern China and explores the roles of sensory/olfactory experience in the shaping of modern social imaginaries.