An 18th century engraving shows a Chinese family sitting down to a meal of rice. The mother smokes a pipe while carrying a baby on her back. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Smoking in China: from ‘herb that makes you forget your worries’ to ‘poisonous weed’ in the span of a few decades, and the 300 million still lighting up there over 300 years later

  • Tobacco was so prized in 17th century China that history records people bartering a horse for 600 grams of the weed, which was touted for its health benefits
  • However, a Chinese emperor banned smoking in 1639, and books began warning of its harmful effects. Yet today, a fifth of people in China still smoke
After the 16th century “discovery” of the tobacco plant in the New World by Europeans, smoking quickly caught on worldwide. Today, cigarettes and related products can be found almost everywhere in the world, probably even in Antarctica. The latest iteration of smoking does not involve setting desiccated tobacco leaves alight, and comes in different guises – e-cigarettes, vapes, mods, even “electronic nicotine delivery systems”.
Advocates of this new form of smoking say that it is much less harmful than traditional products you light up and that it can help smokers quit their habit. Detractors rubbish these claims and believe it is another insidious attempt by tobacco companies to cultivate a new generation of nicotine addicts.

Tobacco arrived in China during the Ming dynasty’s Jiajing era (1522-1566) from the Philippines, then a colony of the Spaniards, who were the first Europeans to ship and cultivate tobacco outside the Americas. Within a few decades, the scale of China’s tobacco cultivation had surpassed the Philippines and Chinese tobacco were exported back to the Spanish colony.

Smoking soon enjoyed enormous popularity in China, in part due to its perceived health benefits. Even women and children were lighting up. Apart from its effects as both a stimulant and relaxant, many erroneously believed that it could heal certain ailments, such as chills and fevers. A medical text completed in the mid-17th century even calls it “the herb that makes you forget your worries”.

American explorer Rear Admiral R.E. Byrd smokes tobacco left behind from an expedition 12 years earlier at his hut on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Tobacco smoking has reached every corner of the world. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/Bettmann Archive

Naturally, the tobacco trade became very lucrative. At almost the same time as tobacco cultivation began in Europe, a region of Shandong province was planting and processing the cash crop in a big way, employing 400 workers and raking in two million taels (75 tonnes) of silver in annual sales revenue.

Books from the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi era (1662-1722) record that people on the remote northern frontiers bartered a horse for one catty (about 600 grams) of processed tobacco, and Russian border guards paid for three to four catties of Chinese tobacco with an ox.

An anti-tobacco campaign in the streets of Suzhou, China. Photo: Francois Le Diascorn/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

However, it wasn’t long before the adverse effects of tobacco smoking were observed in China. Several books on medicine and horticulture written from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century warn their readers that inhaling the fumes from the “poisonous weed” will dehydrate the body and burn the lungs. It results in sore throats, coughs and causes smokers to lose their voice.

Smoking also interferes with the curative effects of medicines. People who smoke regularly will certainly shorten their lifespans. These health warnings were as pertinent a few hundred years ago as they are in present times.

The first prohibition on tobacco smoking in China was issued by the Chongzhen Emperor, the last ruler of the Ming dynasty, in the 12th year of his reign (1639). It was said he banned smoking because of a children’s rhyme that spoke of smoke smouldering across an empire in the throes of rebellion and war, which he took as auguring ill for his realm.

A 19th century engraving depicting a Chinese man smoking a pipe. Two centuries earlier a Chinese emperor announced the country’s first ban on smoking tobacco. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The subsequent Qing dynasty and the rulers of the “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom”, a breakaway southern state that lasted from 1851 to 1864, also tried to ban smoking. The consequences for violating the prohibitions were very harsh, and included whipping, heavy fines and even decapitation – but the smoking bans were never sustained and the Chinese continued to use tobacco.

Today, China has more than 300 million smokers, over one-fifth of the country’s population of 1.4 billion. This number is even more staggering when one considers that Chinese smokers account for nearly one-third of the world’s total smoking population. The public health consequences of this situation should weigh heavily on the minds of the country’s leaders.