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

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

1
Early Modern Globalization and the
Origins of Tobacco in China, 1550–1650

Tobacco was initially carried across the worlds oceans on European ships in the pockets of those people—sailors, slaves, and merchants—whose labors made possible the entire early modern enterprise of maritime trade and overseas colonialism.1 In the vibrant port cities of the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea, European seafarers passed along knowledge of Amerindian tobacco to their local counterparts, who in turn initiated others in this new practice. In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, coastal farmers acquired seeds early on and began producing tobacco for sale in local markets even as other groups of cosmopolitan travelers transported this new commodity to settlements far removed from the initial port of call. In the intensified era of sustained transoceanic and intercontinental encounters that characterized the expanding world of trade in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, tobacco was disseminated far and wide by people of many ethnicities on the move.

Tobacco swept into China on the same crest of global mobility that carried it to Africa and other parts of Eurasia. When and how tobacco first entered China cannot be documented with any precision. However, as active participants in early modern transregional trade networks, many Chinese would have had ample occasion to encounter this curious new plant and its uses. The maritime zones along the southern coast and the northeastern Liaodong Peninsula, the two major channels through which tobacco was introduced into the East Asian mainland, were diverse regions of cross-cultural interaction (map 1). Prior to the 1560s, when the Ming dynasty lifted official bans on overseas trade, Chinese merchants based in Fujian carried out clandestine commerce with their counterparts in Japan and Southeast Asia.2 As Europeans joined Asian actors in the region, traveling not only along the sea lanes that had long connected East Asia to the Indian Ocean realm but also from

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