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Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010 by Carol Benedict (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 73, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 190-194 | 10.1353/jas.2013.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is a characteristic of many good histories that their publication seems strangely late; as soon as they appear, they make the need for research on their subject seem so plain that one wonders why in-depth studies had not appeared much sooner.

Carol Benedict has composed a book of this sort. It is a monograph that is likely to serve, for the foreseeable future, as the standard English-language reference on the history of tobacco in China. Clearly written, assiduously researched, and broad and thoughtfully balanced in its coverage, Golden-Silk Smoke offers a welcome and essential guide for all serious students of the topic.

It feels overdue. Chinese have been smoking now for five hundred years. Although it was originally associated with the low class men of the borderlands who first introduced the habit to Ming China— sailors and private merchants along the southern coast, and soldiers, privateers, and freebooters on the northern frontier—smoking eventually spread to all classes and regions. By the mid-Qing, tobacco had been thoroughly indigenized and taken firm root in the soil and economies of regions as disparate and distant as Yunnan, Gansu, and Fujian; the acreage given over to the cultivation of this transplanted new-world crop eventually rivaled that devoted to tea. Centuries before the arrival of modern cigarettes from abroad, enormous quantities of tobacco were already being consumed daily—in long pipes, in water pipes, and in powdered form, as snuff—by women as well as by men, by leisured scholars as well as by weary laborers, by peasants in the remote inner hinterland as well as by connoisseurs in cosmopolitan ports.

Benedict is particularly keen to explore the diversity within this quasi-universal embrace. If the craving for tobacco transcended divisions of class, gender, and region, the precise content and manner of its consumption, she emphasizes, were exquisitely differentiated. Tobacco became a perfect marker of social difference. Golden-Silk Smoke is first a tale of distinctions.

Peasants typically could afford only the cheap locally grown tobacco hawked in temple fairs or periodic markets. City dwellers of means could go to specialty shops to choose imported tobacco from France or Spain. The very affluent, meanwhile, could flaunt luxuries such as snuff ground from Brazilian tobacco, stored in bottles crafted from Turkestan jade, Baltic amber, or African ivory. Consumption conspicuously expressed taste, and taste expressed who you were, or, at least, who you aspired to be.

In the seventeenth century, the Shima of Zhangzhou reigned as the tobacco of choice for those in the know, only to have its reputation— and inevitably, its price—eclipsed in the eighteenth century by Yongding tobacco, after the latter was officially declared fit for imperial use. By the eighteenth century, handbooks such as Wang Shihan's Jin si lu 金絲錄 (A record of golden shreds) and Chen Cong's Yancao pu 煙草譜 (Tobacco manual) promoted a culture of connoisseurship, reviewing and ranking the subtle nuances of fragrance that distinguished the tobaccos of different provinces, and elaborating the rituals and paraphernalia that set apart refined smoking from uncouth puffing.

In the Republican period, Benedict says, "Choosing to smoke a cigarette rather than a pipe signaled not only a personal sense of style but also where one stood on the pressing issues of the day" (p. 11). When cigarettes were championed by upscale urbanites sporting Western suits, straw hats, and leather shoes, long pipes came to be associated with the countryside and old traditions. For many Shanghai-based writers, smoking cigarettes thus asserted a progressive openness to modernity, whereas pipe smoking bespoke attachment to an outdated past. Jingpai 京派 traditionalists such as Lao She and Shen Congwen, for their part, envisioned the same contrast from the opposite angle, identifying the long pipe with the authentic native values and honest laborers of the countryside and cigarettes with the decadence of Westernized modern cities. A style of smoking announced a moral stance.

Yet if the choice of what and how one smoked underlined differences in economic means and cultural allegiance, the act of smoking often served to enhance social bonds. Sociability is another important theme of Golden-Silk Smoke. Although the modern writer Wu Zuxiang 吳組相 idealized the passing around of the...

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