Taiwanese art historian: What colour is the scent of autumn?

Strolling in the autumn light, Taiwanese art historian Chiang Hsun remembers that his mother always requested for fabrics in the colour of “autumn’s scent”. If fragrance sets a mood, and that mood can be captured in a mood board, what would that scent look like? Perhaps at the very least, it’d be a rich, mellow shade of dust settling on the seasons.
What colour is autumn's scent? (iStock)
What colour is autumn's scent? (iStock)

Walking along the river bank, I took in whiffs of fragrance from various plants.   

Bailu (白露, the time when temperatures fall and dew forms) has arrived. The air smells a certain way in autumn. It has a faint, lingering scent that is quiet and still. Perhaps the autumn wind has washed away the strong and rousing scents of spring and summer?      

My mother adored the colour of qiuxiang (秋香, lit. “autumn’s scent”). When I accompanied her to pick out the fabric for her clothing, she often asked, “Do you have anything in the colour of autumn's scent?”  

“Autumn” is a season while “scent” is something you smell. The younger generation would perhaps find it difficult to associate these words with a colour.

Colours in the West are visual, but colours in the East are also a season or a scent.

The novel Dream of the Red Chamber mentions a soft fabric in the colour of autumn’s scent that has been kept away for forty years because it is too precious to be used.

Autumn (iStock)
Autumn in Taiwan. (iStock)

So what is that colour? Young art students often ask me about the colour of autumn’s fragrance. Perhaps the fragrance of autumn is not only a colour but the gradual change of the seasons from unsettling heat to a state of calm, where leaves turn one after the other from lush green to yellow, then brown, and later ochre. It is a dancing, dazzling light that has settled down into autumn light. 

I think that the colour of autumn’s scent captures the shift from clamour to calm. Sometimes, it appears more yellowish and greenish, while other times it is more brownish and ochre. The novel Dream of the Red Chamber mentions a soft fabric in the colour of autumn’s scent that has been kept away for forty years because it is too precious to be used. It is a soft and delicate piece of fabric made into a curtain. When hung against the window, it looks just like autumn light.      

The chromatic spectrum of the retina is actually created under different light conditions. With changing seasons, colours turn into autumn’s light, and then qiuxiang or autumn's scent, before memories of time are formed.

Autumn is a season of abundance. After a time of flourishing, autumn's light flits and dazzles in the forest in shades of green, yellow, brown, and ochre. This is perhaps the colour of autumn’s scent that Mother was always searching for.

A cluster of Japanese cheesewood flowers. (Facebook/蔣勳)

I found clusters of Japanese cheesewood flowers on the shrubs by the roadside. The faint scents in the autumn wind must have led me to her. I haven’t heard people talking about such a poetic colour like autumn’s scent for a long time.  

Wandering among the woods on the river bank during Bailu, I've found my long-lost autumn’s scent. 

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