The Points Interview: Carol Benedict

The fourth installment of the Points Interview series is ready, and I’m happy to say that it takes us into the fascinating world of tobacco history.  Carol Benedict is author of Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010, set to be released next month by the University of California Press (you can read an excerpt here).  She is currently on the faculty of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of History at Georgetown University.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

One third of the world’s smokers, over 320 million, now live in China. Active smokingGolden-Silk Smoke book cover
causes nearly one million deaths in China per year and another 100,000 Chinese die as a consequence of exposure to second-hand smoke. This book examines the deep historical roots of China’s contemporary “cigarette culture” and its burgeoning epidemic of smoking-related illness.  Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century when New World tobacco was first introduced into Chinese borderlands, the book describes the spread of commercialized tobacco cultivation throughout much of China in the seventeenth century, changing fashions of tobacco use in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the emergence of the Chinese cigarette industry in the twentieth century.  It explains why smoking, previously enjoyed by men and women alike, gradually became almost exclusively a male habit after 1900. The book also examines traditional Chinese medical ideas about tobacco, finding that Chinese physicians believed tobacco could be beneficial under certain circumstances even though they fully understood tobacco’s dangers. The perception that smoking could be good for health together with the important role it played in building and maintaining social relationships go a long way towards explaining its pervasiveness in Chinese society down to the present.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Although decocted opium (taken orally as a medicine) had a long history in China, smokable opium appeared only after tobacco did, first showing up in the 1600s as a mixture of raw opium and shredded tobacco known as madak. Tobacco thus paved the way for opium and the histories of the two substances are inextricably connected. There are many histories of Chinese opium but to date there has been no comprehensive English-language study of Chinese tobacco use.  This book seeks to fills that gap.

As an addictive substance, tobacco has had a far more lasting impact on China than opium. Historically, the cultivation of tobacco was far more widespread throughout the country than opium ever was and tobacco’s importance to the Chinese economy has only increased over time. Chinese farmers currently grow more than a third of the world’s tobacco crop and China’s state-run tobacco industry produces in excess of 2.2 trillion cigarettes a year. Tobacco smoking still remains a respectable social practice more than a century after opium use was criminalized. As the first and most lasting recreational drug that took hold in China, the history of tobacco offers the greatest potential for bringing China into comparative world histories of the “psychoactive revolution.”

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Smoking in China today is a highly gendered practice. More than 60 percent of Chinese men smoke but less than 3 percent of Chinese women do. In its final chapter, the book argues that the masculinization of smoking in China was a relatively recent development, occurring only after 1900.  Before then, many Chinese women smoked pipe tobacco just as their men-folk did. However after cigarettes were introduced in the 1890s, over time fewer and fewer women initiated smoking. By 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, the numbers of women who smoked was in steep decline. This trend is linked to profound social transformations underway in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Chinese women were entering schools, joining the industrial workforce, and participating in politics. For some daring women, openly smoking cigarettes served as a sign of youthful rebellion and personal emancipation just as it did for their counterparts in the West. However, in the 1920s and 1930s a counter-discourse emerged that associated female cigarette smoking with a particular stigmatized type of “new woman” known as the “Modern Girl.” Portrayed as flamboyant, hyper-sexualized, and politically apathetic, the Modern Girl was condemned as unpatriotic by conservatives and reformers alike. Once cigarettes became emblematic of the Modern Girl’s presumed lack of virtue and tainted patriotism, any Chinese woman who smoked them was potentially suspect. Those who sought political respectability, especially after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, elected not to smoke.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from Golden-Silk Smoke are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Although tobacco use has been pervasive for centuries in China, the vast majority of smokers, particularly those living in rural areas, only shifted from pipes or snuff to manufactured cigarettes after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949. As outlined in the epilogue, the ascendency of the cigarette in China as an item of mass consumption in the countryside occurred largely as a consequence of economic policies and developmental strategies pursued by the CCP from 1949 on. The history of the Chinese tobacco industry after 1978, when the CCP initiated economic reforms is well-documented. However, what happened to the industry during the Maoist period (1949-76) is less well understood.  After 1949, the CCP greatly expanded production, making cigarettes more available and affordable for the “masses” than ever before. Fragmentary evidence suggests that cigarette consumption consequently increased in China in the 1950s and 1960s. Certain policies implemented under Mao Zedong appear to have paved the way for the subsequent explosion of cigarette use after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. I would welcome a fuller investigation of the history of Chinese tobacco use in the first two decades of the People’s Republic of China.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s assume for the moment that Ken Burns won’t be doing a series based on your book. Who should provide the voice of the audiobook?

Barack Obama, currently the world’s most famous smoker, should do the voice for the audio version of Golden-Silk Smoke.

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4 thoughts on “The Points Interview: Carol Benedict

  1. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for this fascinating interview, and for the book itself. The point about tobacco usage predating opium usage in China is particularly interesting, given the fact that New World tobacco had so much further to travel than Asian opium.

    Ben

  2. a much awaited one! Especially the point which Benedict makes about criminalization of opium and proliferation of tobacco cultivation.After Yangwen’s ‘Social Life of Opium in China’, Benedict’s take on tobacco in China appears to be a real treat for scholars engaging in study of alcohol and drug cultures.

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