Before the doctors forced him to quit, my father was a heavy smoker, burning through almost a pack a day. He would even send me to the shops to buy cigarettes, back in the days when children could do that. The packaging was attractive, sans revolting pictures of diseased body parts and ominous warning labels, and the smell of cigarettes still in their packs had a toasted, mossy quality I found rather pleasant. And yet, I never picked up the habit. After a few tentative puffs in my teens, I decided I didn’t like it and that was that.
The tobacco plant was first brought to China in the 1570s, from the island of Luzon, in what is today the Philippines, by Chen Zhenlong, a merchant from Fujian. Smoking the leaves of the plant, which the Chinese called danbagu, a corruption of the Spanish tabaco, quickly caught on in China. A Chinese book written in the early 1600s recorded that “the state of Luzon produces a plant called danbagu [...] light one end and place the other end in the mouth. The smoke that enters into the throat through the pipe will intoxicate one and protect one from miasmic vapours”.
The Ming dynasty’s Emperor Chongzhen tried to ban tobacco smoking in 1637 but because his troops fighting the Manchu in the northeast were addicted to the habit, he had to rescind the order.