The annual Dragon Boat Festival is about to begin in China and that means it’s time to eat zongzi—filled dumplings of sticky rice which are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. It’s a tasty tradition, like hot cross buns at Easter.
The opening sentence of this culture piece from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, is a bit puzzling, however:
The Dragon Boat Festival is just around the corner and while the making of zongzi has been around for years, some mums still follow the custom of embroidering scent bags for their kids and other family members.OK, so scent bags, like zongzi, are a traditional part of the Dragon Boat Festival. But what’s the connection? We never find out. Instead, Xinhua tells us about the historical origins of scent bags (Princess Tongchang of the Tang Dynasty), what they’re stuffed with (angelica and Ageratum), and why they are worn:
The belief is that these small bags stuffed with various herbs can ward off disease and evil. Their pleasant fragrance helps refresh the mind, prevent colds, and improves the appetite.I wonder how seriously contemporary Chinese people take the medical claims for scent bags. According to Zhang Qian, whose earlier piece in the Shanghai Daily appears to be the basis of the Xinhua story,
Herbal aromas like mint, ageratum and flagleaf can help stimulate the nerves when they travel through the nose to the brain. Other herbs like cang shu and bai zhi can help dispel pathogenic dampness which usually burdens the digestive system and thus improve appetites.“Stimulate the nerves”? Sounds like Princess Tongchang meets the Professeur de Parfums. “Dispel pathogenic dampness”? Hmmm . . .
In medieval England people wore scent-filled pomanders as a defense against the plague—the reasoning was that evil vapors cause the plague, so good ones will prevent it. Rosemary was thought to be particularly effective and there are historical accounts of herbal price-gouging during epidemics. The sachets in your grandmother’s linen closet are direct descendents of pomanders, but their popularity has more to do with aesthetics than medicine.
Zhang Qian notes that
Now, there’s an idea: Hang a pair of herb-stuffed fuzzy dice from your rearview mirror—they’ll make your car smell better and clear the pathogenic dampness from your digestive system at the same time. Booyah!
As well as being worn on the body, scent bags can also be used as decorations in rooms or in cars.