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張元幹《浣溪沙•薔薇水》 “To the Tune ‘Huanxisha’, on Rose Water” by Zhang Yuangan







The moon circles around the flowering twigs, [casting] clear, sparse shadows.

Where dewdrops are dense real pearls drip.

Heavenly scent, imbued with regret, entangles the blossoms’ whiskers.

After the bath, the dark clouds [2] vary in bearing,

[And] blending out the green on the brows [3] is painstaking.

[Yet] as [he] returns, [I shall] express [myself] with [my] makeup.[4]

* From Zhang Yuangan’s 張元幹 (1091- ca. 1161) Luchuan guilai ji 蘆川歸來集, 6.4b-5a; Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 edition, vol. 1136 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987).

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] “Clouds” are a typical metaphor for hair. [3] Elü 蛾綠 refers to the dark green colour of freshwater snails that was often used for the eyebrows. [4] Alternatively, the line can perhaps read, “[But I was] told to put on makeup for [him] at the time of [his] return.”


As I was fascinated by some advertising copy for French luxury perfumes I translated recently, I feel obliged to embark on an olfactory journey into the Chinese tradition. I haven’t found any classical advertising copy yet, but I believe it’s not too unfair to say that poetry shares certain qualities with such advertising copy, especially in the use of imagery and evocative language. I’m still waiting for the opportunity to experience the rich, enchanting scents of the perfumes I worked on, but I’ve already been taken by their descriptions to the rainy season of Madagascar, the sunshine of Californian beaches, the silence of starry nights in Middle Eastern deserts, the spring flowering of lily-of-the-valley in Greek myths and Irish forests... I began to wonder when perfumery started to work its magic on Chinese poets.

The answer wasn’t very surprising: the earliest known records of perfume in Chinese history were from the Tang dynasty, a time of vigorous economic and cultural exchange.[5] We have two records about qiangweishui 蔷薇水 (rose water). In the early half of the tenth century, the Later Tang court acquired (probably from Shu) a magnificent artificial garden with a pond of rose water.[6] Given the context, this is surely a symbol of extravagance, but we don’t really know much about the nature and origin of this rose water.

A slightly later incident suggests another form of rose water that comes closer to what one might expect of a perfume. In 958, the King Sri Indravarman of Champa sent an envoy to the Tang court with gifts including fifteen bottles of rose water. It’s also noted that the rose water “comes from Xiyu 西域 (Western Regions) and is to be sprinkled on clothes. The fragrance won’t disappear even when [the clothes] are worn out.”[7]

To trace things further back a bit, one may find that Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819) would always wash his hands with qiangweilu 薔薇露 (rose dew), which some believe is the same as rose water, before reading a letter from Han Yu 韩愈 (768-824).[8]

Extant records don’t really allow us to define the relationship between the three rose-related liquids. But there is still something that we can say with confidence: rose water had become an olfactory representation of luxury and privilege. This magic liquid gained more popularity during the Song and can be found frequently associated with exquisite clothing, extravagant bathing, and incense burning in poetry, expressing, as perfumeries nowadays like to say, a certain art de vivre.

Quite a few renowned Song poets have written about rose water. The poem translated above by Zhang Yuangan 張元幹 (1091-1170) looks interesting to me as it seems to be the only example that is dedicated to rose water.

Zhang Yuangan is known as a poet who witnessed the Jurchen conquest of the Northern Song and was banished from the Southern Song court for his opposition to peace negotiations. Many of his famous works are thus imbued with a heroic mood. However, he also seems to have developed a keen interest in aromas when he was more relaxed. In fact, ten out of his fifteen poems to the tune “Huanxisha” address some sort of fragrance, with several dedicated to specific aromatic materials.

Instead of elaborating on a luxurious setting or sensorial pleasure, this poem about rose water depicts an occasion when it is worn in a subtle and emotional way. For a ci-lyric, it is not a difficult thing to associate “regret” in such a context with separation and one’s longing for one’s lover. But the last line introduces an uplifting tone as it hints at an upcoming reunion, turning all the complaints in previous lines into a bittersweet feeling. The preciousness of rose water is thus conveyed by the fact that it is reserved for such a special moment.

We don’t know anything about the date or context of this poem except that, based on its theme and style, it is more likely to have been written in an early stage of the poet’s life. It’s also hard to say whether the poet is depicting a real scene with the perfume in it or whether he is imagining a scene created by the perfume. In any case, with the close-ups of moonlit twigs, dewdrops, hair after bathing and fine eyebrows, Zhang Yuangan seems to share a common language with a modern perfume lover, and I can already imagine how this poem can be turned into a short advertising film for rose water...

[5] By “perfume” here I mean fragrant liquid instead of pleasant smells in a general sense. China had developed a rich tradition of aromatics, spices and even personal smells even before the Tang dynasty. For an overview of the use of aromas (especially incense) in early China, see Olivia Milburn, "Aromas, Scents, and Spices: Olfactory Culture in China before the Arrival of Buddhism", in Journal of the American Oriental Society 136, no. 3 (2016): 441-464. [6] See Tao Gu 陶穀 (903-970), Qingyilu 清異錄: [7] See Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072), Xin Wudaishi 新五代史: For a short survey of rose water during the Tang dynasty, see Edward Schafer’s Golden Peaches in Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics 618-907) (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1963), 171-172. [8] See Feng Zhi 馮贄 (fl. early tenth century), Yunxian zaji 雲仙雜記:

The album leaf for qiangwei 蔷薇 (rose) in the “Ershisi fan huaxinfeng” 二十四番花信風 by Dong Hao 董誥 (1740-1818).

For another painting of white roses by Ma Yuan 馬遠 (c. 1160–65 – 1225) near contemporary with Zhang Yuangan, see:; Palace Museum, Beijing.


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