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

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

5
The Fashionable Consumption
of Tobacco, 1750–1900

Chinese tobacco, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century and beyond, formed part of a dynamic domain of consumption that changed over time. Used by all ranks, classes, and both genders, Chinese tobacco was never one undifferentiated commodity: people in China, as elsewhere, consumed the substance in socially stratified ways that varied in accordance with price, changing social norms, ideas about its medicinal qualities, and the dictates of fashion. The gradual geographical diffusion of commercial tobacco cultivation that occurred between 1600 and 1750 as outlined in chapter 2 resulted not only in a profusion of inexpensive local tobaccos but also in a proliferation of premium regional tobaccos that could be sold for relatively high prices. This trend, combined with the importation in the eighteenth century of fancy snuff from Europe and the Americas and fine tobaccos from Japan and Korea, enhanced possibilities among some quarters for the conspicuous consumption of tobacco as a means of displaying one’s wealth or status.

The “stylish” consumption of tobacco was initially limited to well-off smokers (or those having rich patrons) with access to extremely expensive shredded pipe tobacco. At first, the number of renowned “brands” was quite limited and included only those varieties grown in or near famous processing centers along the eastern seaboard. Over time, regional specialization and product diversification meant that many more people could purchase distinctive tobacco products according to their economic means. The particular “brand” of tobacco selected depended on not only its perceived health benefits or the personal preferences of the smoker but also changing aesthetics of taste. These fashionable patterns of tobacco consumption were not fixed but continued to change as social inferiors attempted to emulate the

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