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

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

2
The Expansion of Chinese
Tobacco Production, Consumption,
and Trade, 1600–1750

Despite its common origins in the Americas, New World tobacco followed a somewhat different historical trajectory in China than it did in Europe. In contrast to early modern Europeans, who eventually consumed imported tobacco grown by enslaved laborers on colonial plantations and distributed by royal monopolies or government-chartered joint-stock companies, Chinese consumers for the most part smoked tobacco grown in China on countless small family farms spread across the empire. Much of this domestically produced tobacco was traded locally or intraregionally, but by the eighteenth century a thriving market had also developed for high-end tobacco leaf produced in specialized growing districts situated around the country. Processed in tiny workshops located near tobacco farms in the mountainous peripheries of China’s nine macroregions, premium regional tobaccos were aggressively marketed by the large merchant groups that dominated China’s longdistance trade. With several notable exceptions, including the aforementioned tobacco grown in coastal Fujian, Liaodong, and Shandong and that produced in far western Gansu, the most famous varieties smoked by elite Qing consumers originated in the hill country of southern, central, and western China settled by Hakka and Han migrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By the mid-eighteenth century, mainly as a consequence of large-scale migration into the Yangzi River highlands, a two-tiered system of tobacco production and consumption was firmly in place. Peasants smoked affordable tobacco grown locally, while the moneyed elite conspicuously consumed expensive tobaccos transported over great distances through China’s integrated market economy.1 The wide variety of tobacco products on offer at different levels of the marketing hierarchy meant that tobacco was readily available to both urban and rural consumers at all

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