- Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010
In recent years there has been an undeniable turn toward the history of commodities. As an approach, it offers the opportunity to examine cross-cultural contacts, technology transfers, and the transmission of medical knowledge, among other attributes. At the same time, commodities history can uncomfortably straddle the intersections of economic and cultural history, as well as domestic and international history. It is a challenge at which few have excelled, but Carol Benedict is undoubtedly among those who have. Her study of the long history of China's experience with tobacco considers both national and international implications, the introduction and dissemination of foreign knowledge, and the remarkable progress by which tobacco became a "Chinese" product with its own cultural connotations.
The book relates its history through the various tobacco products China consumed. Beginning with a long section on the arrival and spread of pipe tobacco, the narrative then discusses the differentiation of tobacco consumption with the rising popularity of snuff and water-pipe tobacco, and ends with the mass consumption of the machine-rolled cigarette. Though unquestionably a history of tobacco, the shifts in consumption reveal the underlying stages of commoditization. Borrowing Sidney Mintz's terminology, the early era is one of "extensification," when a new product is accepted and its consumption spreads throughout the social ranks. Snuff and water-pipe tobacco became popular with Chinese elites in the eighteenth century, and this class differentiation was "intensification" in which the commodity became a marker of elite social status. The cigarette, by comparison, was first consumed as a hand-rolled tobacco product among the urban poor, but, with the rise of machine-rolled cigarettes in the late nineteenth [End Page 426] century, modern marketing targeted all social groups, inventing new ways of appealing to elite consumers. Its overall popularity marks the cigarette as a prime example of an extensified commodity, but the connection between marketing and status meant it remained intensified as well. While the overarching narrative of tobacco's consumption resembles numerous other commodities, the depth of Benedict's research still offers new insights into the peculiarities of tobacco and Chinese society.
China adopted a number of new crops from the New World, via the Spanish trade through Manila. First to be domesticated were maize and the sweet potato in the late sixteenth century, and tobacco arrived soon thereafter. Reflecting the diversity of the early modern global economy, tobacco appears to have arrived from Spanish and Portuguese traders along the coasts, from Korean merchants over land, and along Central Asian caravan routes. The Chinese reaction to tobacco has its similarities to and differences from that of the West. Unlike in Europe, there was little concern with the foreign nature of tobacco or of any particular association with "barbaric" peoples. Also unlike most Western societies, there was no particular fear of women smoking. Rather, overindulgence was condemned "as a wasteful extravagance." Furthermore, the criticism "was directed at all tobacco producers and consumers, not at female smokers in particular. To smoke was to indulge one's own pleasure at the expense of one's extended family and, by extension, the imperial order" (p. 85). Unquestionably, this is quite different from in the West, where a woman smoking was widely seen as a moral danger, even if female smokers were hardly unknown. The evaluation of the Chinese medical community, however, would have been familiar to Western doctors. Overindulgence placed patient's "health at risk by crossing moral boundaries of frugality and abstinence into the hedonism of overindulgence" (p. 97). While this verdict was the product of Chinese knowledge of "systematic correspondences," learning to moderate tobacco use was also the verdict of seventeenth-century English and Dutch medical authorities, whose knowledge came from Galenic principles. The mixture of Eastern and Western agreement and marked differences makes tobacco a template for comparing cross-cultural exchanges.
Furthermore, one of the great strengths of Benedict's work is that the era of global exchange...