Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    Scents of Self: Why Young Chinese are Obsessed with Fragrances

    The fragrance industry in China is on the upswing as younger consumers embrace scents for self-expression and comfort.

    In 2020, during her sophomore year at university, Zhang Qijing was so captivated by the sweet scent of osmanthus blossoms wafting across campus that she went out and purchased her first perfume. Little did she know where that bottle would lead her.

    Now 23, Zhang is obsessed with fragrances — from perfumes to scented candles and essential oils. In homemade sachets, she even dries flower petals to concoct her own scent bouquets.

    She is not alone in being beguiled by such heady fragrances. They are rapidly becoming integral to the daily routines of young Chinese consumers, who view them as a form of self-expression and stress relief.

    China’s fragrance industry is projected to reach a value of $5.3 billion by 2026, as reported by CBNData and

    The untapped market potential is huge, given that perfumes have penetrated only 5% of the Chinese market, compared with 42% in Europe and 50% in the US.

    Zhang, who lives in the southern city of Shantou, says she enjoys visiting shops where she can sample fragrances, including woody, fruity, and floral scents, as well as special fragrances that evoke the smell of sun-dried clothes. Once, she even came across a scent called “father’s feet,” which she found so peculiar that she simply had to try it.

    She also finds such fragrances calming. Zhang recalls how one night an unpleasant odor drifted into her bedroom from downstairs, causing her to lie in bed awake. After lighting a scented candle, she found that not only did it cover the malodor but created a relaxing atmosphere that lulled her to sleep.

    “Every time I smell a fragrance I like, it brings me joy and helps me to calm down,” she explains. “Many fragrances can be purchased for around 35-50 yuan ($5–$7). It is a good way to enhance quality of life without spending much.”

    In fact, the use of scents in China dates back thousands of years. As early as the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–220 A.D.), incense was employed for its healing properties, while perfumes were crafted from an array of balsams, flowers, and plants.

    Burning incense has been a crucial aspect of prayer rituals since ancient times, often used to seek good health and happiness, or to honor ancestors during important occasions.

    Throughout the ages, however, the use of scents didn’t play a big role in the lives of average Chinese as they were considered a luxury reserved for nobles or the wealthy.

    China’s younger generations have repudiated such traditional notions.

    Among them, Beijing resident Wu Qiong, 38, has a collection of more than 3,000 scents. She was introduced to perfume during her freshman year in 2004, when someone gifted her mother a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

    When she first smelled the famous fragrance, she says she couldn't understand why anyone would like its “baby-powder smell.” That led to a study of perfumes which, among other things, changed her thinking about Chanel No. 5.

    Wu now embraces all kinds of fragrances, from vintage scents to salon varieties, commercial perfumes to specialty artisan creations. Recently, she has developed a strong preference for perfumes that draw on the scent of daffodils.

    “The perfect scent always seems to be in the next bottle,” Wu says of a quest that seems unending.

    The rising popularity of fragrances in China is largely driven by young customers, especially Gen Z and millennials, who are at the forefront of national consumerism. According to surveys, it’s women in particular who are willing to spend money on small luxury items that make them happy.

    Stepped-up marketing about the benefits of fragrances and aromatherapy has contributed to expanding sales, according to Echo Gong, strategic consultant at market research company Coresight.

    “Social media and stores promote products, and many shops and pop-up stores offer fragrance testing,” Gong said. “Many individuals are turning to aromatherapy as a means to relax and improve their mood.”

    It doesn’t stop with just a dab behind the ears or a spray on the wrists. Fragrances have expanded into areas such as household cleaning products, car fresheners, and personal-care products.

    The home fragrance industry got a boost during in the past few years, when people sought to make their living spaces more comfortable while staying at home. This expansion led to an explosion of more diversified products entering the market, such as essential oils, scented candles, and flameless diffusers.

    Zhang said fragrance is also a factor in her choice of everyday items like laundry detergent and shampoo, adding that many daily-goods brands now play up scents in their products. Meanwhile, clothing stores like Victoria’s Secret, malls, and even hotels utilize fragrances to establish signature aromas.

    “This strategy is clever,” says Zhang. “Whenever I come across a similar scent elsewhere, it triggers memories of a specific brand or store.”

    Beijing resident Wu agrees: “Fragrance is a highly imaginative form of art,” she says. “It has the power to transport people away from the real world and evoke vivid memories.”

    She recalls buying a bottle of L'Artisan’s limited edition of “harvest fragrances,” daffodil-rich perfume — when she first began collecting fragrances.

    “It was the first luxury perfume I ever bought,” she says. “Whenever I get a whiff of that scent, it reminds me of what a hardworking person I was back then.”

    (Header image: VCG)