Some reflections on Tobacco in China
The Chinese love smoking. It’s something so apparent that even western newspapers, which are generally oblivious to anything having to do with China (other than occasional anti-CCP demonstrations and riots), gleefully report on the inevitable death of most Chinese men. In 1998, the BBC reported that in the next 20 years up to one-third of Chinese men will die from smoking related complications. As recently as 2009, the government ordered state employees to smoke more in order to prevent national recession. Opinions are slowly changing, some provincial capitals have banned indoor smoking, but here in Xi'an smoking is as popular as ever. In modern China smoking is cool, masculine, and cheap, but the Chinese have always been fascinated by this imported habit.
Tobacco was introduced to China sometime in mid 16th century. Unlike other Columbian Exchange crops (meaning peppers, potatoes, maize, etc.) it immediately took root. Tobacco was most likely introduced through the major Fujian trading ports. Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Quanzhou, Fujian had exclusive trading rights with the Philippines, and so, long before the Opium wars, Europeans were selling the Chinese smoke.
Fujian Province was the perfect place for tobacco to enter China. People say the province is, “Eight parts mountain, one part river, and one part field.” Population pressure in the province has always been extreme, but arable land was limited. Fortunately, tobacco did well where other crops failed, in sandy mountain soil. Within a few generations smoking tobacco became a popular hobby and the crop was widely grown throughout the country. Despite early Qing (1630’s) anti-tobacco laws, elite interest and peasant profit failed to go up in smoke (really sorry about that...).
The indolent and wealthy were obsessed with tobacco. To tap into this growing love of the leaf, two 18th century smoking manuals were published. Yan Cao Pu 烟草譜 [A Guide to Tobacco] compiled by Chen Cong 陳琮 （1761-1823) is a manual on smoking with hundreds of poems on the subject, and Yan Pu 烟譜 [A Guide to Smoking] by Lu Yao 陸燿 (1723-1785) is a guide that is more concerned with smoking decorum. Below are some translations from these two texts.
From A GUIDE TO SMOKING
Section Five: Taboo and Suitability
There are eight situations in which is suitable to smoke.
1. After getting up.
2. After eating.
3. With a guest or company.
4. While you write.
5. When you read and feel tired.
6. When you wait for a good friend and they don’t come.
7. When you have a belly full of stress.
8. When the table has no food or alcohol.
There are seven situations in which it is taboo to smoke.
1. While listening to the zither.
2. While feeding cranes.
3. While admiring orchids.
4. While observing plum blossoms.
5. While making ancestral offerings.
6. At Imperial Court meetings.
7. While sleeping with a beautiful woman.
There are furthermore seven times during which it is suitable to smoke.
1. While on a horse.
2. While lying under a quilt.
3. When affairs are busy.
4. When one’s purse is empty.
5. While treading on fallen leaves.
6. While sitting in a shelter waiting for a boat.
7. Near a stack of old papers.
There are five things about smoking that are detestable.
2. Inhaling loudly.
3. When a host is stingy [by not offering a smoke.]
4. When a guests smokes too much.
5. When it takes too long to get a light when one is seeking one.
Excerpts from A GUIDE TO TOBACCO:
Great Enterprise in Plum Village
By Mr. Wu
Puffing fragrance, exhaling the Sage’s vapor;
Bluish tendrils born from the subtle Smoke.
The Gentleman’s Companion, it warms my heart
And leaves my mouth feeling as a divine furnace.
An account by a Smoker
By my very nature I love smoking, thus, my pipe never leaves my hand. When I often evaluate myself, I consider Gu Zhucun, whose drunken euphoria is discussed by everyone [in our town]. On one fine day, at a gathering of friends in one of their studios, I said to Mr. Gu, “When everyone talks smoking and drinking they bring up us two, but none yet know which is the better. So who can decide? Today, let’s test it with a contest. Starting now, you take your wine and I my pipe, and with your glass never stopping and my pipe never being put down, we should steadily imbibe. The first to lose pace will be called the loser.” Gu agreed, and so for each puff I took, he took a sip. From noon until seven in the evening [we competed until finally] Gu became drunk and carefree! I was, as before, able to speak and laugh with self-composure.
On the origin of the Habit
Smoking initially flourished in the cities and then spread outwards to the countryside. It began with boys and men until it gradually made its way into the boudoir. The Ji Yuan Ji Suo Ji says, “In elegant boudoirs they refer to [smoking] as dining on fragrance and partaking in the poplar…”