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 smoking
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.