The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive

Yang Meiping Chen Nuo
Meet Chen Xingzhi, a 74-year-old from Shanghai who has transformed her passion for making intricate sachets into a thriving business venture, with some help from family members.
Yang Meiping Chen Nuo

Editor's note:

How do you define aging? Slow, old-fashioned, with housework and neighborhood gossip? Over 36 percent of Shanghai's population is 60 or older, and many are keen to explore new things in fashion, art, sports and philanthropy. This series, "Ageless Wonder," focuses on the colorful lives of seniors and their inclusive and innovative spirit.

Shot by Jiang Xiaowei. Edited by Zhong Youyang, Wang Xinzhou. Subtitles by Yang Meiping.

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Chen Xingzhi, 74, is the founder of the brand "Xing's Sachets."

Chen Xingzhi had to wait till her retirement to follow up on her dream "job."

The 74-year-old Shanghai resident has turned her childhood hobby of making sachets – in this case, scented sachets – into a successful business venture today.

"I had never considered running a business before retiring, but my hobby has now become my family business," said Chen, who has roped in her son to help her as her early efforts showed promise.

"My great-grandfather was a traditional Chinese healer, and my grandmother would make sachets filled with Chinese herbal powders for me and my siblings before the Dragon Boat Festival every year," Chen told Shanghai Daily. "It's a tradition originating from ancient China."

The Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu, occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month when the weather gets hot and bacteria and insects multiply rapidly.

In the past, people would hang sachets packed with herbs not just for their scent but also for their ability to repel mildew, moths and insects. The herbs are also said to be good for people's health.

"In the TCM book, 'Huangdi Neijing,' or the 'Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine,' it has been mentioned that certain herbs, when inhaled, can stimulate nerve cells and cause reactions in the body that boost our immunity system," Chen said.

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Chen's sachets are on display in a hall in the Xinhong Subdistrict community cultural center in Minhang District.

As a child, Chen learned to make the scented sachets from her grandmother, including the formula for the herb powder and how to stitch sachets into various shapes, such as peaches, hearts and classic Chinese rice-pudding zongzi.

It was only after retiring from her regular job at a textile firm around the year 2000 that she decided to give her hobby a try.

"I was trying to find something to do to kill my time," she said. "I don't like dancing or playing mahjong. So, when I spotted sachets at a temple fair, my childhood memories resurfaced, and I resolved to make sachets of my own."

At first, Chen made some sachets and gave them away to relatives and friends, but as people expressed interest in them, her confidence grew. Her craftwork captivated the majority of them.

Chen said making authentic traditional sachets in modern times was difficult.

For starters, there were no ready-made herbs for sachets. She then got TCM pharmacies to grind the herbs, such as angelica root, Agastache, sandalwood, clove and borneol, into powders but had to blend them herself.

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Herbs are ground into powders that are used in sachets.

There were also issues with fabrics. She struggled to find materials with traditional motifs with auspicious meanings, such as dragons, phoenixes, peonies and lotuses.

During one of her shopping trips to Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, she burst into tears.

"I was stressed out as I could not find proper material," she said. "Some fabrics were too light, while others were too heavy. Both can be problematic for producing sachets, especially when making unusual shapes.

"Take the heart-shaped sachets, for example. If the material is too dense and stiff, you cannot have beautiful pleats; if it's too sparse, the herbs will slip through the apex."

She then decided to collaborate directly with companies to produce customized patterns and threads for designing difficult sachet shapes.

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Specially-ordered materials for making sachets

The effort paid off.

Soon after, the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies offered to sell her products at their stores.

Sensing an opportunity, Chen created her own brand, "Xing's Sachets," which, over time, grew in popularity as orders poured in from businesses and people.

Her products evolved from conventional to creative forms, such as cicadas, tea cups, qipao, and stone carvings in Dunhuang.

"I get inspiration from everything, such as books, news and travel," she said. "I enjoy making sachets and thinking about them often. When a new idea strikes me even when I am sleeping, I work on it immediately, even if it means waking up in the middle of the night."

Chen has created roughly 180 different varieties of sachets over the course of nearly 20 years. Her products have been displayed at the 2010 World Expo as well as the China International Import Expo. Some have been chosen as Shanghai keepsakes and given to important guests on special occasions.

She now delivers lectures about her product in communities, schools and businesses.

In 2016, she was named one of Minhang District's seventh batch of intangible cultural heritage inheritors.

In 2021, an exhibition hall was built at the community cultural center in Xinhong Subdistrict of the district that displays Chen's sachets and promotes the culture of Chinese-scented sachets.

"I feel satisfied," Chen said. "My hobby has helped to spread the culture and entice others to learn it. "I think it's a fantastic idea."

Chen has a team of five full-time employees and 60 part-time workers who help her in the job.

As business grew, Chen encouraged her son, Zheng Huixiong, to leave his job at an information technology company and join her.

It wasn't an easy decision to give up a well-paying job. But, after a year of deliberation, mother and son decided to be guardians and inheritors of the scented sachet culture.

"My mother, who has given her entire life to promoting the sachet culture, touched me, so I decided to assist her," Zheng told Shanghai Daily.

"As I became more involved, I became fascinated with sachets as well. I'd like to conduct research to learn more about its history and current innovations."

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Ti Gong

Chen showcases her sachet-making skills at the 2nd CIIE.

Zheng looks after the company's operations, which allows Chen to concentrate on the product.

He did, however, contribute to the design of some popular items, such as sachets shaped like cuju balls (an old Chinese football) and museum sculptures of mythical creatures.

"The skill of making footballs dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907)," Zheng said. "When it reached Japan, the Japanese used it to make handballs."

"Both footballs and handballs are large. As a result, we attempted to make the balls smaller so that they could be carried around as aromatic sachets."

They experimented for approximately a year before successfully wrapping the herb packets with colorful thread to make the gorgeous ball-shaped sachets. They created several variations over the course of three years.

It earned them the Best Styling Award in a sachet design competition in 2019.

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Chen with the ball-shaped sachets on a shelf.

Zheng has also created other sachet products to entice the younger generation, such as scented sachet brooches, earrings, and hangings, all of which are hugely popular.

Chen's granddaughter, 15-year-old Zheng Xinyun, has also inherited the sachet-making skill.

Watching Chen make sachets at home, little Zheng Xinyun made one herself at the age of eight. She has also demonstrated her abilities at her school and in the community.

She also came up with design concepts, first suggesting a cat-shaped sachet before moving on to sachets in the form of mythical creatures in blind boxes, which are popular with trend-seeking consumers who like uncertainty and randomness.

"I'm not sure if I would make sachet my career, but obviously, I won't get rid of them from my life," Zheng Xinyuan remarked.

Chen was happy that the sachet culture was being passed down to her family.

"Old age has its pleasures," she admitted. "I will keep innovating to make more sachets because it makes me happy."

The sweet scent of sachets is keeping a tradition alive
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Chen discusses her sachets with a group of young students.

Special Reports