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

By Carol Benedict | Go to book overview

9
New Women, Modern Girls, and the
Decline of Female Smoking, 1900–1976

From the seventeenth until at least the late nineteenth century, many Chinese women of all social ranks consumed tobacco just as their menfolk did. Granted, there were gendered differences in the location of consumption: Chinese men could smoke in public, but well-mannered women smoked privately out of view. As detailed in chapter 3, historical and literary representations of Qing-era women consuming tobacco—be it the peasant woman with her rough-hewn pipe or the upperclass matron with her more elegant and refined water pipe—are too common to allow for any other interpretation. Prior to 1900, Chinese women, “respectable” or not, smoked tobacco.

And then, in the twentieth century, many women stopped. Or, to be more precise, smoking among women gradually died out as fewer women initiated smoking to begin with. Certainly by the time the Peoples Republic of China was established in 1949, smoking among women was on the decline.1 After 1950, there was a steady decrease in the numbers of young women who initiated smoking: whereas the proportion who started to smoke before age twenty-five was 10 percent for all urban women born before 1940, it was only 1 percent for those born between 1950 and 1964. Only 4 percent of rural women born before 1940 began to smoke before age twenty-five, and only 2 percent of rural women born between 1950 and 1964 did.2 Few younger women, especially those born after 1965, smoked cigarettes at all. By 1996, the percentage of women who smoked was less than 3 percent of all women.3

This change in behavior—from a society in which many women smoked tobacco to one in which few do—is especially interesting when it is contrasted with the gendered patterns of smoking in Great Britain and the United States over the same time period.4 In those countries, tobacco smoking (or snuffing), which had been ac-

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