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Deodorizing China: Odour, ordure, and colonial (dis)order in Shanghai, 1840s–1940s*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2016

University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom Email:


Smell is deeply meaningful to human beings. Often considered elusive, ephemeral, and volatile, it has long been excluded from scholarly accounts on culture and history. This article explores this ‘lower’ sense and the roles it played in the historical process of modernization in China. Through a close look at the efforts made by the Western colonial administration to deodorize Shanghai as well as diverse Chinese reactions, this article argues that smell constituted a hidden site where the dynamics of power relations were played out. Smell also opened up a window to showcase modernity's power and ambivalence. The first part of this article looks at how China smelled to the Western nose, against the historical background of the rising consciousness of smell, sanitation, and civility in Europe which began in the eighteenth century. The second part examines the ways in which the British administration applied the olfactory norms of the modern West to the end of taming Chinese stench. The final part provides a case study of ordure treatment in order to show how ambivalence arose in this modern smellscape and why.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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This article is part of my research project ‘The Cesspool and the Rose Garden: The Social Life of Smell in Modern China, 1840s–1960s’. The project has been supported by a Gerda Henkel Research Fellowship and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship. This article was completed under the sponsorship of the Nantes Institute for Advanced Studies and IFK International Research Centre for Cultural Studies in Vienna. I am indebted to the four institutions for their generosity. I also thank Liu Wennan, Mark McLeister, Paul Pickowicz, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and help, as well as many other scholars in Nantes, Vienna, Heidelberg, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh who provided feedback to my presentations of this article.


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3 Ibid., p. 16.

4 Ibid.

5 In 1845, as the consequence of the British military victory over China in the Opium War (1839–42), a plot of about 830 Chinese mu (138 acres) in the northern suburb outside the walled Chinese city of Shanghai was allocated to the British to live under an agreement known as the Land Regulations. An American Settlement was established in 1848 and was amalgamated with the British one in 1863 to become the International Settlement. The French concession was established in 1849, bounded by the Chinese city to the east and the British Settlement to the north. These foreign settlements expanded in the following decades and existed until the early 1940s. See Lu, Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 2829Google Scholar.

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15 Ibid., p. 87.

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19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., p. 37.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., p. 244.

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25 Corbin, Alain, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 61Google Scholar.

26 Ibid., p. 6.

27 Ibid., p. 57.

28 Ibid., p. 58. Also see Vigarello, Georges, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages, trans. Birrell, Jean (Cambridge, UK; New York; Paris: Cambridge University Press; Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1988)Google Scholar, Chapter 10 ‘The stench of towns and people’, pp. 142–55.

29 Hamlin, Christopher, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854 (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 85Google Scholar.

30 Ibid., pp. 60–61.

31 Roberton, John, Observations on the Mortality and Physical Management of Children (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1827), pp. 207–8Google Scholar, quoted in ibid., p. 124.

32 Hamlin, Public Health and Social Justice, p. 110. Also see Lees, Andrew and Lees, Lynn Hollen, Cities and the Making of Modern Europe, 1750–1914 (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 115ffGoogle Scholar.

33 Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity.

34 See Bickers, Robert A., Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–1949 (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Bickers, Robert A. and Henriot, Christian, New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953 (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Isabella Jackson, ‘Managing Shanghai: The International Settlement Administration and the Development of the City, 1900–1943’, PhD thesis, University of Bristol, 2011; Jackson, I., ‘The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai’, Modern Asian Studies, 46, no. 6 (2012): pp. 1672–704CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 ‘Shanghai Land Regulations (29 November 1845)’, The North-China Herald, 17 January 1852, p. 99.

36 Land Regulations and by-Laws for the Foreign Settlement of Shanghai (Shanghai: North-China Herald Office, 1907), p. ii.

37 Ibid., p. 11.

38 Ibid., p. 16.

39 For an overview of this development see Shanmin, Peng, Gonggong weisheng yu Shanghai dushi wenming, 1898–1949 (Public Health and Urban Civilization in Shanghai, 1898–1949) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2007), pp. 4142Google Scholar.

40 Shanghai shi dang’an guan, ed., Gongbuju dongshihui huiyilu (The Minutes of Shanghai Municipal Council) (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2001), Vol. 1, pp. 32/576. The two page numbers refer to the original English version and its Chinese version, both printed in this volume. Hereafter MSMC (followed by the volume number, page numbers, and the date, for example MSMC 1, 32/576, 6 December 1854) for ease of reference.

41 MSMC 1, 128/606, 19 December 1860.

42 MSMC 1, 199/623, 4 September 1861.

43 MacPherson, A Wilderness of Marshes, p. 132.

44 For a brief overview of the development of this system, also see Xinzhong, Yu, ‘The Treatment of Night Soil and Waste in Modern China’, in Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, eds, Leung, Angela Ki Che and Furth, Charlotte (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 59Google Scholar.

45 This study mainly draws upon sources in MSMC, Vols 1 and 2. A more comprehensive study of this material (28 volumes in total) can only be done in book-length projects.

46 MSMC 1, 84/592, 20 October 1856.

47 MSMC 1, 622, 7 August 1861.

48 Peng, Gonggong weisheng yu Shanghai dushi wenming, pp. 44–45.

49 The North-China Herald, 27 October 1868, p. 514.

50 See MSMC 1, 641, 646, 649, 661, 664, 668–69, 675, 677.

51 MSMC 1, 306, 6 August 1862. Also see MSMC 1, 675, 18 March 1863. Customs medical officer John Dudgeon also reported on this Chinese ‘habit’ in official medical reports. See Li Shangjen, ‘Fuwu yu angzang gan’, p. 50.

52 MSMC 1, 278/641, 11 June 1862. ‘Chop’ is a term that was used at the time in the Far East to refer to an official stamp or permit. See Morris, William, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (New York, et al.: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1969), p. 238Google Scholar.

53 MSMC 8, 358, 19 March 1886.

54 Ibid.

55 MSMC 1, 308/646, 13 August 1862.

56 MSMC 1, 424/668–9, 14 January 1863.

57 MSMC 1, 675, 11 March 1863.

58 Land Regulations and by-Laws for the Foreign Settlement of Shanghai, pp. 16–17.

59 This is based on my reading of MSMC 1.

60 MSMC 1, 87/593, 15 December 1856.

61 MSMC 1, 186/620, 26 June 1861.

62 MSMC 8, 359, 19 March 1886.

63 MSMC 7, 141/633, 4 March 1878.

64 MSMC 1, 186/620, 26 June 1861.

65 Cain, William, Sanitary Engineering, 2nd ed. (Raleigh: P. M. Hale and Edward Broughton, 1880), p. 3Google Scholar.

66 Lockhart, The Medical Missionary in China, p. 244.

67 See, for example, MSMC 1, 594, 595, 606, 614, 615, 617, 622, 625, 630, 633, 635, 638, 644, 647, 667, 677, 685, 700.

68 MSMC 1, 53/581, 2 April 1855.

69 The North-China Herald, 25 February 1860, p. 31.

70 MSMC 1, 168/616, 21 April 1861.

71 See ‘Municipal Council Finance’ in ‘Municipal Report for the Year Ending 31st March 1864’, ed. The Shanghai Municipal Council (Shanghai, 1864, n.p.)

72 Land Regulations and by-Laws for the Foreign Settlement of Shanghai, p. 11.

73 Robert Alexander Jamieson, ‘Dr Alexander Jamieson's Report on the Health of Shanghai for the Half-Year Ended 30th September, 1871’, Customs Gazette, no. 11 (1871): p. 33, quoted in MacPherson, A Wilderness of Marshes, p. 17.

74 Land Regulations and by-Laws for the Foreign Settlement of Shanghai, p. 16.

75 MSMC 6, 551–2/753–4, 4 September 1876.

76 MSMC 8, 359, 19 March 1886.

77 MSMC 1, 263/637, 16 April 1862.

78 See MSMC 1, 647, 10 September 1862; MSMC 1, 663, 3 December 1862.

79 For a study of the history of public toilets in Shanghai, see Zhiliang, Su and Shanmin, Peng, ‘Gongce bianqian yu dushi wenming: yi jindai Shanghai weili (The Development of Public Toilets and Urban Civilization: Shanghai as an Example)’, Shilin, no. 3 (2006): pp. 1219Google Scholar.

80 The North-China Herald, 20 May 1881, p. 482.

81 MSMC 5, 657, 1 September 1873.

82 MSMC 7, 523/786, 19 June 1882.

83 Shuk-wah, Poon, ‘Minguo shiqi Guangzhou de fenhui chuli yu chengshi shenghuo (Waste Treatment and the City Life in Guangzhou in the Republican Era)’, Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo jikan, no. 59 (March 2008): p. 88Google Scholar.

84 MSMC 1, 519/690, 4 September 1863.

85 MSMC 1, 432/670, 4 February 1863.

86 Jianren, Wu, Xin shitou ji (New Story of the Stone) (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1986), p. 95Google Scholar.

87 The North-China Herald, 27 October 1868, p. 514. All quotations in this paragraph are from this article.

88 Chinese experiences and perspectives deserve further detailed studies. But this topic is beyond the scope of this article and will be discussed in detail in my book manuscript in the future. I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their kind suggestions about this point.

89 ‘Zujie jiedao qingjie shuo (On the Cleanliness of the Streets in the Settlement)’, Shenbao, 20 July 1872, p. 1.

90 Weiqing, Li, Shanghai xiangtu zhi (An Encyclopedia of Shanghai) (Shanghai: Zhuyi tang/Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1907/1989), p. 68Google Scholar. For a study of the Chinese discourse about this issue, see Yuezhi, Xiong, ‘Shanghai zujie yu Shanghai shehui sixiang bianqian (The Shanghai Foreign Settlements and the Change of the Society)’, in Shanghai yanjiu luncong, ed. bangongshi, Shanghai difangzhi (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexue chubanshe, 1989), pp. 126–31Google Scholar.

91 Kiyoshi, Mine, ‘Qingguo Shanghai jianwen lu (My Observations of Shanghai in Qing China)’, in Shanghai gonggong zujie shigao (The History of the Shanghai International Settlement), ed. Gongsu, Xu, et al. (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1980), p. 623Google Scholar.

92 Hu Cheng, ‘“Bu Weisheng” de huaren xingxiang’, p. 9; Tianyu, Feng, Qiansuiwan’ Shanghai xing: Riben ren 1862 nian de Zhongguo guancha (Sen-Zai-Maroo's Journey to Shanghai: Japanese Observations of Shanghai in 1862) (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 2001), pp. 105–6Google Scholar.

93 Mine, ‘Qingguo Shanghai jianwen lu’, pp. 623–24.

94 Xue, Yong, ‘“Treasure Nightsoil as if it were Gold”: Economic and Ecological Links between Urban and Rural Areas in Late Imperial Jiangnan’, Late Imperial China, 26, no. 1 (2005): pp. 4171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

95 Lockhart, The Medical Missionary in China, p. 37.

96 Barrow, John, Travels in China (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1804), pp. 9899Google Scholar.

97 Smith, George, A Narrative of an Exploratory Visit to Each of the Consular Cities of China, and to the Islands of Hong Kong and Chusan, in Behalf of the Church Missionary Society, in the Years 1844, 1845, 1846 (London: Seeley, Burnside and Seeley [etc.], 1847), p. 227Google Scholar; for similar observations also see Liddell, China, Its Marvel and Mystery, p. 55.

98 MSMC 2, 148–9/505, 7 June 1865.

99 MSMC 2, 184/515, 5 September 1865. Also cf. Yu, ‘The Treatment of Night Soil and Waste in Modern China’, p. 60.

100 For example, the revenue generated by the sale of nightsoil was 2987.58 taels in 1892, 3237.37 taels in 1895, and 4074.19 in 1896. See The Shanghai Municipal Council, ed., ‘Report for the Year Ended 31st December 1892 and Budget for the Year Ending 31st December 1893’ (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1893), p. 272; ‘Report for the Year Ended 31st December 1895 and Budget for the Year Ending 31st December 1896’ (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1896), p. 346; ‘Report for the Year Ended 31st December 1896 and Budget for the Year Ending 31st December 1897’ (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1897), p. 268.

101 Anon., ‘Danfen yi yong tonggai (Coverings Must Be Equipped to Transport Manure)’, Shenbao, 26 October 1872, p. 2.

102 Ibid.

103 Stinky, ‘An Affliction: Late Ordure Carts’, The North-China Herald, 14 September 1938, p. 23.

104 Eau de Cologne, ‘Scene on Wednesday’, ibid. As the foreign working population in Shanghai was predominantly male, I use male pronouns here for the sake of conciseness. But the writers of these letters could have been female.

105 Stinky, ‘An Affliction’.

106 Nauseated, ‘Support for “Stinky”’, The North-China Herald, 14 September 1938, p. 23.

107 A Sufferer, ‘In Rue Lafayette Also’, ibid.

108 Poon Shuk-wah's study of waste management in Republican Guangzhou shows that the intervention of state power in waste management failed to remove the stench successfully. But interestingly, the failure of the Republican government in adopting water toilets actually helped Guangzhou avoid an environmental disaster as happened in London in ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. This is another example of ‘ambivalence of modernity’. See Poon, ‘Minguo shiqi Guangzhou de fenhui chuli yu chengshi shenghuo’, pp. 80, 84–86, 91.

109 Yu, ‘The Treatment of Night Soil and Waste in Modern China’, p. 67.

110 Ibid.

111 See Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965)Google Scholar; Foucault, M., The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973)Google Scholar; Foucault, M., Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977)Google Scholar.

112 Russell, Bertrand, The Problem of China (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1922), p. 74Google Scholar.

113 Claudel, The East I Know, p. 16.

114 Critical reflection about reason, rationality, science, and progress first appeared in the fields of philosophy, literature, and modern art in the early twentieth century. Recent academic studies have paid increasing attention to the role of sentiment, emotion, and sensuality in social and cultural life. For studies in this direction in the field of Chinese history, see Lee, Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Lean, Eugenia, Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tong, Lam, A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), among othersGoogle Scholar.

115 Baby Center Medical Advisory Board, ‘Can You Be Too Clean?’,, [accessed 25 October 2015].

116 Virginia Tech, ‘Being Too Clean Could Be Hazardous to Your Health and the Environment’,, [accessed 16 October 2015].

117 Anon., ‘Being Too Clean “Causes Allergies in Teenagers”’, Metro, 28 November 2010,, [accessed 16 October 2015].

118 US Department of Health and Human Services, ‘Asthma: The Hygiene Hypothesis’,, [accessed 16 October 2015].

119 August Müller and Patrick Manson, ‘Drs. Manson and Müller's Report on the Health of Amoy for the Half Year Ended 30th September 1871’, Customs Gazette, no. 11 (1871): p. 11.

120 For more discussions about this phenomenon, see Li, ‘Fuwu yu angzang gan’, pp. 58–61.

121 Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 55.

122 Ibid., p. 56.

123 Jung, The Archetypes, p. 32.