John K. Fairbank Award, American Historical Association
Early Modern Globalization and the Origins of Tobacco in China, 1550-1650
Tobacco was initially carried across the world's oceans on European ships in the pockets of those people-sailors, slaves, and merchants-whose labors made possible the entire early modern enterprise of maritime trade and overseas colonialism. In the vibrant port cities of the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea, European seafarers passed along knowledge of Amerindian tobacco to their local counterparts, who in turn initiated others in this new practice. In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, coastal farmers acquired seeds early on and began producing tobacco for sale in local markets even as other groups of cosmopolitan travelers transported this new commodity to settlements far removed from the initial port of call. In the intensified era of sustained transoceanic and intercontinental encounters that characterized the expanding world of trade in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, tobacco was disseminated far and wide by people of many ethnicities on the move.
Tobacco swept into China on the same crest of global mobility that carried it to Africa and other parts of Eurasia. When and how tobacco first entered China cannot be documented with any precision. However, as active participants in early modern transregional trade networks, many Chinese would have had ample occasion to encounter this curious new plant and its uses. The maritime zones along the southern coast and the northeastern Liaodong Peninsula, the two major channels through which tobacco was introduced into the East Asian mainland, were diverse regions of cross-cultural interaction (map 1). Prior to the 1560s, when the Ming dynasty lifted official bans on overseas trade, Chinese merchants based in Fujian carried out clandestine commerce with their counterparts in Japan and Southeast Asia. As Europeans joined Asian actors in the region, traveling not only along the sea lanes that had long connected East Asia to the Indian Ocean realm but also from the Atlantic world and even directly across the Pacific, the vigorous maritime networks centered on coastal China were increasingly linked to broader transoceanic economies. The habit of tobacco smoking, rapidly becoming a fixture among European, Arab, and Indian mariners in the second half of the sixteenth century, was readily appropriated by Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian merchants and sailors at about the same time.
The northeastern frontier also proved to be highly porous, particularly in the early seventeenth century when political instability allowed privateers to slip across Ming defense lines into Manchu-held territory. Koreans, having acquired tobacco from Japanese traders, transported Korean varieties into Manchuria in the 1620s and 1630s. Smugglers operating off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula did the same with Chinese tobacco. Despite the efforts of the early Qing state to ban it, many among the Qing conquest elite were already dedicated smokers by the time the Manchus took Beijing in 1644.
Even as European and Asian mariners were plying the waters off China's eastern coast, caravan traders were winding their way across the mountain passes that separated northeastern India and Upper Burma from China's southwestern provinces. Still others were crossing the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts to oases along the ancient routes that connected northwestern China to Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and India. These overland travelers brought a distinctive type of tobacco and new ways of smoking it through water-filled vessels to inland communities in the western borderlands even before it became a commonly cultivated crop in many interior regions of China Proper.
That tobacco entered mainland East Asia in the sixteenth century and diffused widely in the early 1600s has been detailed in many other works. This study follows the basic contours of that well-known story. However, the history of tobacco's introduction into China often begins and ends with the Europeans whose ships carried it from the Americas to the offshore islands and coves of southeastern China. In contrast, this chapter emphasizes the highly interactive nature of the diffusion process along multiple Chinese frontiers. It highlights the ways that Asian actors participated fully in tobacco's transmission through the interconnecting networks that linked the Chinese empire to far-flung places across both the world's oceans and the Eurasian continent. The history of tobacco's interactive emergence in both eastern and western Chinese borderlands serves to underscore late Ming and early Qing China's ongoing and intensifying involvement with the broader early modern world.
The Introduction of Tobacco to Maritime Ming China
Interactions between Asians and Europeans in the harbors of maritime East and Southeast Asia provided the earliest opportunities for Chinese acculturation of tobacco, although how this process actually occurred must remain highly speculative. The initial exchange of tobacco most likely occurred between the multilingual cosmopolitans who moved through this realm. Perhaps after the Portuguese began frequenting the islands along China's southern coastline from the 1520s on, the slave of a Portuguese sailor demonstrated the use of his tobacco pipe to an interested Chinese smuggler. A Japanese resident of Nagasaki in the 1570s, having acquired the smoking habit from Portuguese traders, may have introduced tobacco to Fujianese merchants sojourning in Japan. Or a Franciscan friar, having crossed the Pacific from New Spain to Manila in the mid-1580s, passed on to his Chinese acquaintances knowledge of tobacco's medicinal uses he had gleaned from Amerindian informants. More likely, an enterprising Fujianese merchant, emboldened by the 1567 decree lifting restrictions on trade with Southeast Asia and enticed by the opportunities afforded Chinese merchants in Manila, traded some of his cargo for "danbagu" (tobacco) seeds and brought them back to southern Fujian. In short, any one of the European or Asian agents moving between the ports of East and Southeast Asia in the vibrant Nanyang maritime arena could well have been the first to bring tobacco to the Southeast Coast.
Whenever and however it got there, tobacco was already well established as a commercial crop in coastal Fujian and some districts of Guangdong by the early 1600s. Yao Lü, a resident of Putian County in Xinghua Prefecture (Fujian), offers the earliest textual confirmation (1611) of tobacco cultivation in China. In the section about the native products of Putian in his commonplace book, Lu shu (The book of dew), Yao Lü recorded encountering many local medicinal plants, including a strange new herb called danbagu that came from Luzon (Philippines) and was cultivated by farmers in Zhangzhou with such enthusiasm that "now there is more in Zhangzhou than in Luzon, so they export it to that country to sell it." Yao Lü notes that the herb was also readily available for sale in his home district. By the 1640s, tobacco use in Putian was quite extensive. In 1648, when Qing troops barricaded the city walls against Ming loyalists, tobacco became so scarce and expensive that a "tobacco seller, who wished to go out and purchase tobacco" from local farmers, petitioned to be allowed to leave the ramparts. Instead, his nose was cut off so as to discourage other petitioners.
Tobacco cultivation was common in other areas of southern Fujian in the early seventeenth century as well, particularly the coastal prefectures of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. Indeed, counties in Zhangzhou, particularly Shima, Changtai, and Pinghe became the primary producers of "Shima yan," widely regarded throughout the seventeenth century as one of the finest tobaccos available (see chapter 2). Tobacco cultivation also began in some coastal areas of Guangdong in the late Ming, although tobacco did not become a major cash crop in that province until the eighteenth century.
The most important markets for Fujian tobacco were the cities and towns of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Initially pipe smoking in the Jiangnan region was restricted to those disdained by elite society-itinerant merchants, soldiers, bandits, and the like-but gradually the practice became more fashionable among the gentry (see chapter 3). Ye Mengzhu (1624-ca. 1693), a native of Shanghai who grew up during the last years of the Ming dynasty and lived through the transition to Qing rule, was a keen observer of changing trends in Songjiang Prefecture. In a collection of "miscellaneous jottings," Ye summed up how tobacco spread to the Lower Yangzi region from southern Fujian in the decades from 1620 to 1644: "The tobacco plant first came from Fujian. When I was young, I heard my grandfathers say that there was tobacco in Fujian, and that you could get drunk smoking it. They called it 'dry liquor.' There was none in our region, however. During the Chongzhen era [1628-44], someone named Peng got some seeds, from where I do not know, and planted them in this soil. He picked the leaves, dried them in the shade, and then got workmen to cut them into fine shreds, which he consigned to traveling merchants to sell."
Ye's contemporary, Wang Pu, a native of Jiaxing Prefecture, southwest of Shanghai, confirms the growing popularity of smoking in the region and suggests that cultivation in Jiaxing began in the final decades of the Ming dynasty. Another resident of Songjiang Prefecture, Zeng Yuwang (ca. 1610-?) noted that before 1644 there had never been local smokers in his home village and that "only the Fujianese used it." After the Qing conquest, however, "there is not an official or soldier who does not smoke. It has even extended to the common folk; eight out of ten is the proportion for the past twenty years."
The many long-distance traders who traveled between the Jiangnan region and Tianjin and Beijing along the Grand Canal further served to carry tobacco from Zhejiang and Jiangsu to the northern provinces of Shandong and Zhili. In the late Ming, the junks transporting tribute grain from the south to the capital and the northern border defenses were also allowed to carry nonofficial goods tax-free up to a certain weight. At some point Fujian tobacco came to be included among these extracurricular cargoes. Peasants in Yanzhou, Jining, and other Shandong districts lying along the Grand Canal most likely began growing tobacco prior to the Qing conquest, although the first record of tobacco cultivation in that province dates to 1647. Certainly by 1644, tobacco smoking was widespread enough among urban residents of northern China to ensure the success of Shanxi merchant Zhang Pukai, who sometime in the waning years of the Ming dynasty opened a tobacco shop just outside Tianjin's city wall. The Zhonghe Tobacco Shop (Zhonghe Yanpu) was not only Tianjin's earliest permanent store front; it also became its longest-running family enterprise, continuing on as a tobacco emporium well into the twentieth century.
Chinese officials resident in Beijing did not mention this new commodity until the 1630s. In 1637, the poet Shen Hanguang (1620-77) named Fujian tobacco as one of the finest products available in Beijing shops, and he noted that it was correspondingly expensive. Shen's ranking suggests not only that different varieties of tobacco were already for sale in Beijing markets but also that tobacco smoking was established enough in the capital by that time for connoisseurs to make such distinctions. Yang Shicong (1597-1648), a late Ming official from Shandong, confirms the popularity of tobacco in 1630s Beijing, observing that "it has gotten to the point where there is no one who does not use it."
As in the Jiangnan region, rising demand for tobacco in Beijing led local farmers to plant it in the surrounding suburbs. Yang Shicong observed that although tobacco was "not seen in ancient times," it had been gradually spreading "by degrees" throughout the Chongzhen period until, by 1640 or so, it was cultivated "everywhere," even in districts near the capital. Yang went on to note that tobacco farming was highly profitable: "Within the last twenty years, many people in the Beijing area are growing it. What they make from planting one mu of tobacco is equal to what they can make from planting ten mu of grain fields."
Knowledge of tobacco and techniques for its cultivation diffused fairly rapidly over the level terrain of the North China Plain from Zhili to Shanxi and Shaanxi. In 1637 Shen Hanguang noted that it was already being grown in his home district of Yongnian County (on the border of western Zhili and eastern Shanxi). By the early Qing period, tobacco farming was also under way in the alluvial plains surrounding the Yellow River and its two largest tributaries, the Wei and Fen rivers. Farmers in Quwo County (Shanxi) began cultivating tobacco in the lower reaches of the Fen River valley in the early or mid-seventeenth century. By 1673, tobacco grown along the Wei River in Meiyuan County near Xi'an had already acquired a national reputation for excellent quality (see chapter 2).
Tobacco spread along the eastern seaboard from Fujian to the Jiangnan region, through the Grand Canal zone, and across the North China Plain largely as a consequence of the intensified foreign trade and domestic commerce characteristic of the late Ming period. While some Chinese may have become habituated to tobacco smoking through interactions with the Portuguese along the southern coast of Guangdong, Chinese sojourners who ventured overseas to Manila were the agents most likely to have brought tobacco back to Fujian. Once it was established in growing areas along the southern coast, merchants and other sojourners began carrying it northward. Entrepreneurs such as Mr. Peng of Shanghai recognized the marketing potential of this novel commodity and began cultivating it soon thereafter. The process whereby someone like Peng obtained seeds from some "unknown place," planted them, "picked the leaves, dried them in the shade, and then got workmen to cut them into fine shreds" before "consigning them to traveling merchants to sell" was no doubt replicated over and over again in the waning decades of the Ming dynasty. By the late 1630s, commercially produced Chinese tobacco was already being grown in communities up and down the eastern seaboard and was circulating widely through the interregional networks of trade that linked urban centers in North China and the Jiangnan region to the broader maritime world.
The Introduction of Tobacco into Early Qing Manchuria and Eastern Mongolia
The northeastern frontier region of Liaodong, a second corridor for tobacco's entry into the East Asian mainland, was linked in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to expanding webs of transregional exchange by virtue of its diplomatic and economic relations with Korea, its ties to Central Eurasian trade circuits, and the considerable commerce Jurchens (Manchus) conducted along the northern Ming frontier. Bordering on the kingdom of Korea, China Proper, the Mongolian steppes, and Siberia, Manchuria was also the site of significant political, diplomatic, and military activity from the 1580s on. The dynamics through which tobacco was introduced into the region were therefore somewhat more variegated than along the southeastern coast: generals, soldiers, and diplomats all joined merchants, mariners, and migrants in bringing tobacco to the Northeast.
In the late sixteenth century, when tobacco first began to appear in maritime Northeast Asia, the Ming dynasty controlled the entire lower Liao Valley and the Liaodong Peninsula, administering this territory as part of Shandong Province. This was soon to change, however. In 1618, tensions that had been building for some time between the Ming and Nurhaci (1559-1626), the leader of a confederation of Jurchens from the area around Jianzhou, erupted into open warfare. By 1621, Nurhaci had annexed most of Liaodong, and his troops controlled all of its major towns, including Shenyang (Mukden). Nurhaci's eighth son, Hong Taiji (1592-1643), who became khan upon his father's death in 1626, declared himself emperor of a new dynasty-the Qing-ten years later and renamed his Jurchen subjects "Manchus." After several years of military harassment and successive border raids by Hong Taiji's troops, the northern Ming defenses finally crumbled entirely in 1644, leaving the way open for the Qing to take Beijing and conquer all of China. In the interim, tobacco took hold in the territory controlled by the early Qing state.
As in southeastern China, tobacco first entered Manchuria as an item of trade from the East Asian maritime realm, either by way of Japan and Korea or from the Ming jurisdictions of Shandong or Liaodong. For a time, it remained below the radar of Qing authorities, and so it is impossible to say when it first arrived. It was probably in circulation by 1625 or so. The Japanese had known of tobacco possibly since the 1570s. Koreans became acquainted with it around 1616 or 1617, probably as a result of its importation into the coastal port of Pusan from the Japanese island domain of Tsushima. Koreans began to cultivate and market tobacco in the early 1620s. It was wildly popular among them almost immediately, because its medicinal qualities were said to rival those of ginseng. Probably for these same reasons, Koreans found a ready market for tobacco among the Liaodongese (both Chinese and Jurchen) shortly thereafter.
Chinese merchants may have traded tobacco at the northeastern frontier markets even before rising tensions with the Ming led Nurhaci to annex Liaodong in 1621. The Jurchens had access to the natural resources of Manchuria, including sable furs, pearls, and wild ginseng, all of which were highly desired by their Korean and Chinese trading partners. Up to 1618, when Nurhaci took the town of Fushun, site of the largest and most prominent frontier market, legitimate cross-border trade between the Jianzhou Jurchens and the Han Chinese was conducted at five sites set aside by the Ming for this purpose. At these fairs, held nearly every day by the late sixteenth century, the Jurchens exchanged products of the northern forests for foodstuffs, textiles, iron implements, farm oxen, and agricultural tools. When Nurhaci's troops entered Fushun, merchants from several different Chinese provinces were in residence. At least some of these sojourners were from southern cities where tobacco was beginning to circulate, and it is possible that these merchants had already brought samples forward to the northern frontier even before Hong Taiji succeeded Nurhaci as khan.
Tobacco might also have entered Manchu-controlled territory through eastern Mongolia. From at least 1631 on, Mongol leaders and Hong Taiji exchanged tobacco as diplomatic gifts. Like the Jurchens, the eastern Mongols probably procured tobacco from several sources including traders from Central Asia. In the 1620s, merchants from the Uzbek khanate of Bukhara, for example, were selling tobacco smuggled across Russia or carried along Central Eurasian caravan routes to settlements in southern Siberia despite severe restrictions on tobacco imposed by Russian tsar Mikhail Fedorovich in 1618. In the 1630s, Bukharans were also carrying Chinese tobacco along with tea, rhubarb, and textiles to Muscovite settlements in Siberia. Several routes between China and the Siberian outpost of Tobolsk took them across the Mongolian grasslands, and it is almost certain that they traded tobacco with various Mongol confederations along the way.
Chinese merchants engaged in trade along the northern Shanxi-Shaanxi border likely supplied Mongols with Chinese-grown tobacco as well, although when such trade actually began is unclear. There are no records of such commerce prior to 1644, but the trade may well have predated the Qing conquest. According to Tan Jicong, the compiler of the 1673 Yansui gazetteer, "in the distant past" Shaanxi-Shanxi merchants brought in substantial customs revenues because they dealt in large volumes of tobacco. Yansui (or Yulin), a garrison lying along the line of the Great Wall in northern Shaanxi just south of the Ordos region, had long been a center for the tea-for-horses trade between the southern Ordos Mongols and the Ming Chinese. For many years prior to 1673, however, "the frontier posts have been crowded and profits in the markets have been small." As a result, the big merchant houses that dealt in tobacco had "met with difficulties." Tan Jicong noted that ten years earlier, in 1663, the governor-general of Shaanxi-Shanxi had requested that the throne remit customs duties on tobacco, but even this did not bring the large firms back into the tobacco trade; instead the trade devolved to many smaller private merchants who "exchange goods without cease." The declining fortunes of the Shaanxi-Shanxi tobacco merchants must have occurred well before 1663, suggesting that the Mongolian borderland tobacco trade, as well, had a longer history.
That commercial tobacco was entering both Mongol and Jurchen territory via the frontier horse markets even before 1644 is further suggested by Fang Yizhi (1611-71), the early Qing intellectual who observed that while tobacco had originally appeared in Zhangzhou and Quanzhou in the Ming Wanli era (1573-1620), it had gradually spread from there to the "Nine Borders." Wang Pu, the Jiaxing native mentioned above, underscores this possible route of transmission, noting that by the 1630s tobacco smoking was prevalent among Ming soldiers stationed along the Great Wall and that a small amount of tobacco could easily be exchanged for horses, because "the people on the northern frontier are subject to disorders caused by Cold and they cannot be cured without tobacco." Wang Pu's assertion suggests that Chinese merchants may have been dealing in tobacco as well as tea and textiles along the northern frontier for some time.
In the Northeast, official Ming-Jurchen trade relations were sundered in 1618 as a result of increased hostilities and then outright war. Chinese privateers nonetheless continued to deal clandestinely with the Liaodongese throughout the 1620s and early 1630s. Silver from Japan and the Americas as well as Chinese textiles, tea, and livestock continued to be exchanged for sable pelts and ginseng, albeit in greatly reduced quantities. Eventually (certainly by 1631) Chinese tobacco was also being smuggled into Manchuria from garrisons nominally loyal to the Ming dynasty. Korean smugglers also braved the unpredictable waters of the Korea Bay, sneaking across Ming lines to bring contraband Japanese or Korean tobacco into Manchu territory. At the same time, agriculturalists in Liaodong began to cultivate tobacco, despite strict prohibitions against tobacco issued by Hong Taiji from the early 1630s on. Tobacco consumption within southern Manchuria was clearly on the increase throughout the 1630s, although harsh penalties were imposed on any commoner caught smoking. Yang Fangxing, a Chinese general serving the Manchus, memorialized Hong Taiji about tobacco in the Northeast early in 1633, noting that although the leaves were of no benefit (and smelled terrible besides) "Manchus, Chinese, officials, and commoners" all used it. By 1638, smoking in Shenyang was so prevalent that the Korean author of the Simyang changgye (C. Shenyang zhuangqi [Letters from Shenyang]) noted, "There is a prohibition in the capital [Shenyang], but it is still used without restriction" because "it is desired by everyone."
The Qing conquest elite were thus enamored of smoking long before they passed through Shanhaiguan to rule over China. This was true of both genders and all status groups. Many of the unfortunate residents of Liaodong caught up in Hong Taiji's dragnet against tobacco in the late 1630s were women. After the bans were lifted in 1641, even prominent members of the imperial lineage such as Imperial Regent Dorgon (1612-50) smoked openly. Chinese literati in the newly conquered territories frequently remarked upon how pervasive this social practice was among Qing soldiers and officials, as did European observers present in China at the time. In Sichuan, according to genealogist Fu Yiqiang (dates unknown), tobacco was "indispensable" for Mongol and Manchu banner troops, possibly because they believed it would protect them from the malarial miasmas (zhangqi) of the Southwest (see chapter 4). The Fus hastened to provide it to the new arrivals by converting their fields to tobacco.
As suggested by the Fu family genealogy, Qing bannermen were agents for tobacco's even wider dispersal throughout other areas of China Proper after the conquest. For a few years before 1644, due to late Ming prohibitions against tobacco that paralleled those in force in Liaodong, Jiangnan officials banned tobacco. As a result, cultivation in Songjiang Prefecture dropped off. The arrival of banner troops restimulated the local tobacco industry such that "suddenly merchants arrived from all corners, so the planters went back to planting and the profits they made doubled." Gradually, tobacco was appropriated by the upper gentry as well, and by 1670 smoking was prevalent in the Jiangnan region even among the Han gentry elite (see chapter 3).
The entry of Qing troops into Beijing also reanimated the North China tobacco trade. Farmers in Shandong districts lying along the Grand Canal, particularly in Jining and Yanzhou, began replanting tobacco for sale in the capital. By 1647 tobacco farms were ubiquitous throughout Yanzhou Prefecture. As one gazetteer compiler observed, "Now it is grown throughout the district. Every year a steady stream of merchants comes from Beijing to buy up the [Yanzhou] tobacco and they have set up tobacco guilds in many places." Similarly, farmers in the suburbs around Beijing intensified cultivation of tobacco after the Qing conquest. Père Louis Le Comte (1655-1728), a French Jesuit who arrived in China in 1687, described tobacco growing just outside the city walls. This locally grown tobacco was sold primarily for non-elite consumption, however. Wealthier smokers preferred tobacco products brought in not only from Manchuria and Fujian but also newly established growing districts in far distant locales scattered across the empire, including some in China's far western borderlands.
The Introduction of Water-Pipe Tobacco into the Western Borderlands
China's international trade relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries extended not only over the waters to Japan and the maritime realm of Southeast Asia but also across Eurasia to the kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia and the empires and khanates of Central, South, and Southwest Asia. The process under way along the eastern seaboard, whereby local cultivators began growing tobacco soon after its introduction, was also occurring in other coastal areas of Asia in the late sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century, tobacco grown along the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, or the eastern Mediterranean was circulating along well-established overland tracks that linked continental Eurasia with China's western border regions. Traders moving along the Sino-Burmese frontier brought tobacco from eastern India to southwestern China, while still others transported tobacco smuggled into Russia or grown in India, Persia, or Anatolia into eastern Siberia, Mongolia, and the Eastern Turkestani territories that would become Xinjiang. Yunnan and Gansu, the two western Chinese provinces connected to mainland Southeast Asia and Central Eurasia via overland routes, served as the borderland crossroads where many subjects of the Ming and Qing dynasties first learned to inhale Asian-grown tobacco through water pipes.
The custom of drawing tobacco through water was unique to those parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that were connected commercially by the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and culturally by the Muslim diaspora. Spread by hadj pilgrims, Indian merchants, and African, Persian, Arab, or Central Asian traders, water pipes of various constructions, ranging from the Indian huqqah (or hookah), Arab nargilah (or narghile) or shishah, and Persian qalyan, came to be used in India, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Madagascar, and East Africa and throughout much of Southeast Asia as well as in western China. Although the exact origins of the water pipe are unknown, southern India seems the likely starting point. The earliest water pipes consisted of hollowed-out coconut shells with straight bamboo reeds serving as pipe stems (nargilah is a Sanskrit word for coconut). This simple design, easily accessible to poor people, was used along the southeastern coast of India in the sixteenth century and may have been adapted by other precocious smokers throughout the Indian Ocean realm. By the early seventeenth century, more elaborate forms were in use both in western India and Persia.
The earliest extant Chinese water pipes date from the eighteenth century. With their solid one-piece containers and long gooseneck stems, they more closely resemble the simple pot-shaped design of the original Indian huqqah than do the nineteenth-century Chinese-style pipes that were smaller and more portable than those found elsewhere. The "bong" pipe still prevalent today in western Yunnan and also in Burma, northern Thailand, Malaysia, and Borneo also suggests Chinese and Southeast Asian elaboration on the initial Indian form. It is possible that sojourning Chinese encountered the practice of filtering tobacco smoke through water in the Nanyang seaports also frequented by Indian traders. Several Chinese sources indicate that early smokers along the eastern seaboard used water to filter tobacco smoke, though how they actually did so remains unclear. However, it is just as likely that this South Asian method of smoking tobacco spread overland into western China along the long-standing trekking routes that connected Yunnan and Gansu to newly established tobacco-growing regions in other parts of Asia.
Tobacco first arrived in the eastern Indian Ocean realm on Portuguese ships in the mid-sixteenth century around the same time it was being introduced into coastal China. Already by the mid-1500s, Portuguese mercenaries and private traders had established themselves in scattered coastal outposts throughout the Bay of Bengal. Villages that came under their control began planting tobacco in the late 1500s. Other indigenous farmers quickly followed suit. By the early seventeenth century, tobacco grown along the eastern coast of India was being exported to Southeast Asia. European travelers reported seeing tobacco smokers in Malaya in 1608, Burma in 1616, Siam in 1622, and Vietnam in 1631. Bengal, Andra Pradesh, and Chennai (Madras) quickly emerged as major growing regions, as did the Coromandel Coast. The Portuguese friar Sebastian Manrique (1587-1669) observed tobacco cultivation in Bengal during his travels through India between 1629 and 1643 and noted that this commodity was exported in great quantities to Arakan, an independent Burmese kingdom located on the northern curve of the bay. By the 1620s, Indian tobacco had also become an export item of some importance in the interregional trade between southeastern India and Pegu (Bago in today's Myanmar), a seaport at the mouth of the Irawaddy River that had strong commercial ties to India and Sri Lanka.
Yunnan was linked to coastal Burma through an intricate network of roads, mountain trails, and rivers that had long connected southwestern China to peninsular Southeast Asia, northeastern India, Tibet, and Central Asia. The main trunk of this ancient "Southwest Silk Road" passed from Chengdu in Sichuan through western Yunnan into Upper Burma and from there to the Indian states of Assam and Bengal. One of several branches off this overland trek followed the Irawaddy River through Lower Burma to Arakan. Another passed through Chiangmai in northern Siam and arrived at Pegu. Yang Bin and Shen Laichen, who have studied commerce along these overland routes in great detail, persuasively argue that until the early Qing period when a dramatic upsurge in Han Chinese migration into the Southwest began to draw western Yunnan ever more tightly into the broader Chinese political economy, the southwestern border region was economically oriented primarily toward the eastern Indian Ocean. Trade between Burma and Yunnan was especially brisk in the final decades of the sixteenth century because demand for Burmese gemstones increased dramatically among late Ming Chinese elite. The Ming court used large quantities of silver, some of which was mined in Yunnan, to purchase rubies, amber, and jade from the Shan states of northern Burma. Chinese silver flowed to Arakan and Pegu in exchange for goods brought in from Bengal and other Indian Ocean regions. One 1580s report describes more than two hundred merchants and thirty heavily loaded boats headed up the Irawaddy toward the Chinese frontier.
The Tai, Burmese, Lao, and other traders who moved goods from the coast to the interior did not leave many written records of their activities, and there are few Chinese accounts of the road beyond the far western town of Tengyue. We know many of the commodities that were carried along these borderland tracks, but not all. Gold, silver, weapons, copper and iron vessels, Chinese silk, and Pu'er tea were taken to Lower Burma and India in exchange for elephant tusks, Indian textiles, raw Burmese cotton, and the Indian Ocean cowry shells that continued to be used as currency in Yunnan well into the seventeenth century. Spices and drugs such as asafetida and rhinoceros horns were also moved by boat from the Burmese coast upriver to Bhamo, where they were transferred to caravans of ponies that carried them through Upper Burma to the markets of western Yunnan. As a rare but relatively light commodity that could easily be transported in bulk on horseback, tobacco was plausibly included in such cargoes as well.
Although contemporaneous evidence for the actual transmission of Indian-grown tobacco to Yunnan through Burma is absent, the historical conditions necessary for this to have occurred were certainly in place by the late sixteenth century. Qing-era gazetteers report that farmers in districts of western Yunnan along the road to Bhamo were already growing tobacco at the end of the Ming Wanli period. This suggests diffusion across the Burmese border. Two other New World plants, maize and sweet potatoes, made a remarkably early appearance in western Yunnan-in Dali by 1563 and Tengyue by 1574-a fact that underscores the close economic ties the interior borderlands of southwestern China shared with the littoral societies ringing the Bengal Bay. Late Ming gazetteers for many of the other districts in western Yunnan record cultivation of maize and sweet potatoes much earlier than do those for other areas of the province. In prefectures farther east, these crops were not listed as local products until the mid-eighteenth century. While this geographical discrepancy might be explained by cultural or economic differences between Han Chinese resident in the eastern part of the province and the distinctive ethnic groups that remained the majority in the west, a more plausible explanation is that these exotic plants reached farmers in western Yunnan first because of the intensive overland interactions between Dali and the Burmese coastal regions connected to broader Indian Ocean circuits of trade. Tobacco grown in eastern India could easily have been introduced into the southwestern borderlands around the same time.
The other possible route for the introduction of Asian water-pipe tobacco into China passed through the steppes of southern Siberia, the high deserts of north-central Eurasia, or the oasis towns of Eastern Turkestan (now Xinjiang) into the far northwestern province of Gansu. Lanzhou, Gansu's capital, came to be known fairly early for its finely shredded "yellow-flower tobacco" (huanghua yan), which was smoked exclusively in water pipes. Located on the well-traveled "Imperial Highroad" that ran from Beijing in the east through the Zungharia and Tarim basins in the west, Lanzhou was a crossroads for all manner of goods, peoples, and customs. While N. tabacum almost certainly arrived in Gansu from other Chinese provinces, the fragrant N. rustica plant that secured Lanzhou's reputation as a premier growing region for water-pipe tobacco may well have dispersed along the Central Eurasian caravan networks that linked Lanzhou not only to the khanates of Eastern Turkestan and Transoxiana but also to the empires of Russia, India, and the Middle East.
Farmers in eastern Gansu began growing tobacco sometime in the early to mid-seventeenth century. Exact dates are not known, but already in the early Qing period, Chinese physicians were celebrating Lanzhou's "yellow-flower tobacco" for its reputed medicinal properties. In 1650, following the violent suppression of rebellious Muslims who rose up in 1648-49 against the Qing forces occupying Lanzhou, the Shaanxi governor-general sought to placate Hui Chinese merchants by issuing certificates authorizing them to sell tobacco as well as tea and silver. This policy suggests that the tobacco trade along the Gansu corridor was already well established by that point.
Certainly Chinese-grown tobacco had already entered Central Eurasian trade circuits even before the Qing conquest. As mentioned earlier, the borderland trade fairs were a likely source for the tobacco that eastern Mongols exchanged in their dealings with the Manchus in the 1630s. "Bukharan" traders-a group that likely included many Eastern Turkestanis from Turfan and the Tarim Basin cities-were already carrying finely cut Chinese tobacco to Muscovite settlements in western Siberia as early as 1637. Chinese tobacco remained a mainstay of the Bukharan caravan trade throughout the seventeenth century and was much in demand among not only Mongols, Russians, and Siberians but also the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uighurs of Turkestan. When Russian-sponsored trade missions began traveling these same overland routes in the second half of the seventeenth century, they found that Chinese tobacco was a much-desired commodity throughout Siberia and Mongolia.
The provenance of "Chinese tobacco" carried to southern Siberia and Russia is uncertain, but Gansu seems a likely source. According to the Croatian Jesuit Iurii Krizhanich (1618-83), who was exiled to the Siberian city of Tobolsk between 1661 and 1676, Bukharans there dealt in two types of tobacco from China, one with a dark color and a pleasant aroma but a very powerful psychotropic effect, and the other a finely shredded greenish tobacco that was much milder. The dark variety was likely a type of N. tabacum grown in western Gansu and known simply as "western tobacco" (xiyan). The best-quality Gansu tobacco-the famous "yellow-flower tobacco" grown only in districts close to Lanzhou-had a greenish tint, was cut into very fine shreds, and could be smoked only in water pipes.
Named for the tiny yellow flowers that appear on the Nicotiana rustica plant, Lanzhou huanghua yan was processed from a species cultivated today in areas of western China (Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Yunnan), northern and northeastern India, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and parts of the Middle East and northern Africa. In contrast to the far more common Nicotiana tabacum, N. rustica has a short growing season and fares best in cool temperatures and at higher altitudes. A hybrid of two wild tobacco species originally found in Peru, N. rustica was first domesticated in the Andes. Over many centuries Amerindian agriculturalists gradually diffused this species northward to the woodlands of North America, where English colonists encountered it when they first arrived in the Chesapeake region. Europeans then transported it from North America to Europe and Asia in the late sixteenth century.
It is unclear how N. rustica ended up in distant Gansu. As noted earlier, tobacco cultivation was already under way in parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi in the early seventeenth century, and the Lanzhou tobacco trade may simply have been an extension of cultivation elsewhere in northern China. It might also have been carried northward from Bengal or Assam by way of Yunnan and Sichuan, because Lanzhou was situated on a northern branch of the Southwest Silk Road. However, the introduction of "yellow-flower tobacco" into the Gansu corridor from northwestern India or eastern Persia by way of Xinjiang, or from Russia by way of Siberia and Mongolia, cannot be ruled out. Already in the early seventeenth century, tobacco grown in northern India or in territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire was beginning to circulate along Central Eurasian trade routes. For example, tobacco smoking was widespread among residents in the Mughal outpost of Qandahār (now the third-largest city of Afghanistan) when Heinrich von Poser (1599-1661), a German nobleman, passed through the Indo-Iranian trading center in 1621. The oasis towns in the Turan depression of Transoxiana (now southwestern Kazakhstan, northwestern Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) first acquired tobacco in the early 1600s, most likely from Iran.
Tobacco, including N. rustica, also grew in the area around Yarkand, located in the far southwestern corner of the Tarim Basin in an area known as Kashgaria (Kashgar and Yarkand). Yarkand was both a mining town and a major entrepôt in Xinjiang's trade with South Asia and the Himalayan countries. Chinese mercantile penetration into the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang did not occur until the eighteenth century or later, and so it seems more plausible that Indian or Bukharan merchants moving through passes in the Karakoram, Pamir, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges brought N. rustica into Kashgaria from northern India or eastern Persia in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. The Eastern Turkestanis who brokered the trade between northwestern China and the cities of southwestern Xinjiang in the late Ming may well have been the first to carry "yellow-flower tobacco" to Gansu along with precious nephrite jade, mined in the Kashgaria region.
Tobacco was also circulating widely in seventeenth-century Russia. The commodity first appeared in Moscow around 1609. Despite repeated official injunctions against it, merchants of many nationalities continued to smuggle tobacco into Russian territory throughout the 1600s. English and Dutch traders brought American tobacco directly into their shared port of Arkhangel'sk in the far north or sold it to Swedish intermediaries in Baltic ports who then traded it with Russians along the northwestern Russo-Finnish frontier. Beginning in the 1620s, Greek and Turkish traders carried tobacco grown along the southern Ottoman coast of the Black Sea to Moscow via Moldova and Ukraine. By the 1630s, Ukrainians were cultivating their own tobacco and smuggling it along with forbidden vodka into Muscovy in exchange for furs and animal hides. Diasporic Hindu merchants from northern India and Bukharan traders from Central Asia were also importing tobacco produced in northwestern India or eastern Persia into the Muscovite port of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea at midcentury. Tobacco remained technically illegal in Russian territory until Peter the Great reversed the bans against it in 1697, but for decades official Russian embassies had routinely used tobacco as diplomatic gifts in Siberia and Mongolia. Some of this likely ended up in the markets of northwestern China.
Ultimately, the origins of Gansu's "yellow-flower tobacco" remain a mystery. Fragmentary evidence suggests, however, that by the early to mid-seventeenth century, tobacco-whether grown in Anatolia, Ukraine, Moldova, India, or Persia, or smuggled across Russia from Ottoman or European ports-was already circulating in the Central Eurasian territories that had direct commercial and cultural ties to China's far west. Given the distances and difficulties of travel over land as opposed to water, frequent and sustained opportunities for tobacco's easterly diffusion from Russia, northern India, or Central Asia into northwestern Chinese borderlands were almost certainly more limited than they were along the eastern maritime frontiers of late Ming China or early Qing Manchuria. Nonetheless, the presence of tobacco in many interior areas of the Eurasian continent by the mid-seventeenth century, from Qandahār to Lanzhou, underscores the fact that these inland territories were not remote, isolated regions entirely cut off from the expanding maritime circuits of early modern trade. When political conditions allowed for safe passage, overland routes were utilized by people on the move. Vanguard smokers transiting through oasis towns and merchants dealing at borderland trade fairs may well have been the first to bring N. rustica to Gansu. As a consequence, Lanzhou, China's gateway to the distant "western regions," became famous for its "local" yellow-flower tobacco-a species that had first been hybridized centuries before on the other side of the world.
The introduction of New World tobacco into Chinese borderlands was part of a complex and sustained globalized process that followed many paths and involved many different actors. The increased presence of European ships in Asian waters after the 1520s was a necessary precondition for tobacco's initial entry into maritime China, because the seeds and leaves of the tobacco plant first arrived in Asian ports on oceangoing vessels. We think of these ships as "European" because Iberian monarchs or English and Dutch investors financed them and men such as Ferdinand Magellan, Thomas Cavendish, and Cornelis de Houtman served as captains. Yet the early modern maritime world was by necessity a multicultural one. Given that many sailors died of scurvy and other diseases during the voyage, the crews manning European ships often included Arabs, Asians, and Africans picked up along the way. The shared experience of a life at sea facilitated the transmission of exotic new customs from one sailor to the next. It is not surprising that the earliest adopters of Amerindian tobacco included many among the itinerant labor force who rigged the sails and propelled these ships across the world's oceans from Veracruz or Bahia to Manila and Macau. Habits acquired on deck easily spilled over to the wharves of Asian port cities. Economic success in these polyglot settings required openness to unfamiliar habits, new foods, and novel fashions. Inhaling the smoke of burning tobacco leaves through a long tube, reputed to have significant health benefits, probably appealed to the local dockhands and merchants who met up with globe-trotting mariners in these cosmopolitan spaces.
As the webs of global maritime commerce thickened, the opportunities for the cross-cultural transmission of tobacco from ship to shore increased. More frequent and sustained contact in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries between seafarers already habituated to tobacco smoking and those in coastal communities as yet uninitiated to the practice greatly facilitated tobacco's spread to many inhabitants of Asian and African littoral societies. Between roughly 1570 and 1620 tobacco appeared in seaports as diverse as Manila, Banten (western Java), Nagasaki, Surat, Bengal, Arakan (Burma), Mocha (Yemen), Kilwa (eastern Africa), and Istanbul. This convergence was partially a consequence of European commercialization of American-grown tobacco around the turn of the seventeenth century. After nearly a hundred years during which tobacco was associated with Amerindian barbarism, Europeans finally began to recognize tobacco's potential profitability. In the 1590s, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English smugglers began carrying large amounts of tobacco across the Atlantic from Spain's Caribbean colonies, having exchanged it for slaves along the Gold Coast of Africa. By the early seventeenth century, Spanish and Portuguese tobacco grown on Venezuelan or Brazilian plantations using African slave labor had become so commercially viable that early English, Dutch, and French settlers chose to plant it in their Bermuda, Caribbean, and Chesapeake colonies. The volume of tobacco shipped across the ocean soared to meet rising consumer demand in northwestern Europe. As supplies of American-grown tobacco increased, European tobacco traders actively began to seek out new markets, smuggling American-grown tobacco, for example, into Russia or exchanging it for Asian luxury goods in far-flung imperial outposts such as Bandar Abbas, Surat, Goa, Batavia, and Macau.
At the same time, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch colonizers began to encourage tobacco cultivation near their coastal fortresses along the east coast of Africa, on the Indian subcontinent, in mainland Southeast Asia, and throughout the island archipelagos of the Philippines and Indonesia. Local African and Asian cultivators soon began growing tobacco in interior regions far distant from the coast. It did not take long for tobacco to become an indigenous crop in many agrarian economies of Africa and Asia, including those of southern China, northeastern Manchuria, the Mughal Empire, the eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Swahili Coast. Long-distance traders then carried this new commodity overland to inland territories. By the 1630s, tobacco grown in many parts of Eurasia as well as the Americas was circulating widely through both the maritime and transcontinental trade networks that connected China to the emerging early modern global economy.
The history of tobacco's introduction into the borderlands of late Ming China and early Qing Manchuria confirms the conclusions of those scholars who have long argued that China was not isolated and closed off from the rest of the world during this period. The many different routes by which tobacco arrived in China-via Iberian and Asian mariners along the Southeast Coast; Japanese, Korean, and Chinese diplomats, soldiers, and merchants in the Northeast; Central Asian and Russian traders in the Northwest; and Southeast Asian trekkers in the Southwest-vividly illuminates the many and varied transregional networks of long-distance trade that China participated in during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As an entirely new commodity imported from the Americas, one that was simultaneously taking hold in many other Old World societies, tobacco, with its complicated itinerary across oceans and continents, underscores the growing interconnectedness of the early modern world. People of many different nationalities, traveling from multiple points of the compass, brought tobacco to the edges of the Chinese empire. In the interactive zones of China's early modern frontiers, tobacco began its initial transformation from exotic import to local Chinese product.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more