Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

Introduction

When American tobacco tycoon James Duke (1865–1925) heard about the invention of the cigarette-rolling machine in 1881, he reportedly leafed through an atlas to find the legend listing the worlds largest population. China, with its then430,000,000 potential customers, he told company executives, “is where we are going to sell cigarettes.”1 When informed that the Chinese did not yet smoke cigarettes, Duke said he supposed they could learn. Now, more than a century later, with 350 million-plus smokers, the world’s most populous country has indeed become its largest consumer of manufactured tobacco products.2 Although in the twentieth century, transnational corporations such as Duke’s own British-American Tobacco Company certainly played a role in creating the present huge demand for cigarettes, extensive tobacco use in China stretches back well before the current modern era of “globalization.” Indeed, several centuries before Duke ever conceived of bringing American tobacco to Chinese consumers, it was already there.

Tobacco, a New World crop long cultivated in both North and South America, initially arrived in East Asia in the sixteenth century, carried there by the European ships that were creating new webs of trade across the world’s oceans. Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to encounter tobacco.3 On his initial voyage, Caribbean natives presented Columbus with dried tobacco leaves, but the mariner scarcely took notice of them. Within a few decades, however, many Spaniards living in Hispaniola had learned to smoke. Those involved in the transatlantic maritime trade were also precocious smokers.4 Initially identified closely with Amerindian idolatry, tobacco’s adoption by Europeans back home, while relatively rapid, was not immediate. Eventually Spaniards developed a taste for Indian tobacco, inadvertently internalizing Mesoamerican beliefs and practices even as the domi-

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