Chinese Foreign Aromatics Importation from the 2nd century BCE to the 10th century CE

by Shiyong Lu

How the appetite for spices, fragrant woods and aromatics drove Chinese traders and travelers from early times.

Decorated Fragrant Wood Famen Temple

Publication: Research Thesis Presented for graduation with research distinction in the undergraduate colleges of The Ohio State University, USA.

Published: April 2019

Author: Shiyong Lu

Pages: 41

Languages : English, Chinese

Exploring the rich fund of Chinese official and private archives, the author establishes the important place of aromatics in Chinese trade, diplomatic and commercial exchanges, and travels.

Southeast Asian destinations were always important on that respect, due to the quality of local spices, precious woods, resins and medicinal plants. Regarding what is now Cambodia, the author notes that "in 446, Emperor Wen of Liu Song defeated Linyi (Southeast Vietnam), which helped secure the trade route. In response to that is an increase of tribute including aromatics sent by those nations to Southern Dynasties. Among those nations were Tianzhu (India), Linyi (Southeast Vietnam), Funan (Cambodia), Panpan (Southern Thailand), DanDan (Malay Peninsula), Poli (Bali), Gantuoli (Kedah). Unfortunately, it was not clear what aromatics each of them specifically offered since their tribute was usually recorded as “various aromatics” or “aromatics and medicines,” but it was likely to be their local specialties."

Later on, writes the author, "the New Book of Tang recorded that people in Zhen la (Cambodia) welcomed their guests with betel-nut powder, camphor and clam shell powder."

Of particular interest was the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora), from which is extracted what the Chinese people called jiebuluo: "In Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, Xuan Zang said: 'Jiebuluo hsiang tree is wet when cut off, and does not have resin. After it dries, the jiebuluo can be found through the wood. It looks like mica, and has the color of snow. This is what called longnao hsiang.' A more interesting description is made by Duan Chengshi, which is very similar to Ibn Khurdadhbih’s record, suggesting Duan might learn that from a Arabian merchant: 'The tree has fat one and thin one. The thin one has po lu gao. Others said the thin one has dragon’s brain, while the fat one has Borneo syrup. Both are in the middle of the tree, and can be collected by cutting down the tree. A pit is carved on the trunk to store the syrup that flows from the end of the tree. To get camphor they make an incision at the top of the tree. From this the water of camphor escapes in sufficient quantity to fill several jars. Once it has been collected another incision is made lower down, about the middle of the tree, from which the pieces of camphor fall. It is the gum of the tree, but it is found in the wood itself. Once the operation has been performed, the tree becomes useless and dries out'."

Photo: Decorated fragrant wood excavated from the underground palace of Famen Temple (from this thesis)

Tags: Chinese research, Chinese trade, Funan, Chenla, traditional medicine, medicinal plants, botanic, camphor

About the Author

Lu Shiyong

Shiyong Lu

Lu Shiyong 陆诗咏 is an artist and researcher based in New York City, NY, USA.

After studying graphic design in Shanghai, China, she graduated from Ohio State University, USA, in 2019. She is currently a PhD candidate in Art History.