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

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

7
Socially and Spatially Differentiated
Tobacco Consumption during the
Nanjing Decade, 1927–1937

By 1927, as the Nanjing Decade began, China’s cigarette industry was well established. Even as the fortunes of individual companies rose and fell, consumer demand for cigarettes only continued to increase. The Chinese cigarette market, whether supplied by transnational tobacco companies, Chinese-owned mechanized firms, or localized hand-rolling workshops, expanded spectacularly between 1900 and 1937. The ready availability of cigarettes in most areas of the country encouraged many Chinese smokers to abandon snuff and pipe tobacco in favor of rolled tobacco products. In the long run, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, cigarettes displaced other forms of tobacco almost entirely. In the short term, however, at least through the 1930s, the introduction of branded proprietary cigarettes did not immediately transform the socially differentiated patterns of tobacco consumption evident under the Qing.

Due to significant price differentials between cigarettes and pipe tobacco, a bifurcated tobacco market, similar to that which had existed in earlier centuries, continued on in many areas of China. Wealthy tobacco users, who had previously gravitated toward foreign snuff, fine water-pipe tobacco, or expensive premium regional tobaccos, now preferred imported cigarettes. Petty urbanites, whose predecessors had purchased inexpensive porcelain snuff bottles or cheap brass water pipes in imitation of the moneyed elite, continued the practice of social emulation when they bought less expensive brands of ready-made cigarettes. The urban poor made do with the cheapest cigarettes produced in smaller Chinese factories, or they smoked pipe tobacco as their forebears had done. Peasants by and large continued to smoke pipe tobacco grown locally. Within China’s deeply inequitable social structure, manufactured cigarettes were, by and large, expensive luxuries rather than items of every

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