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[Offbeat]: The China Tobacco Museum

This free museum out in Yangpu district is a little "thank you" note for smoking. Exit through the smoking lounge.
2014-10-08 10:32:48
It’s almost as if the China Tobacco Museum doesn’t want you to visit. Call ahead and no one picks up. It’s only open three days a week. They make you show your passport just to get in. What are they so afraid you’ll find out?

Here comes the truth: Chinese tobacco is smooth and delicious.

And yet these guys are modest. They don’t want to simply flop out the fact that their cigarettes have brought joy to so many people — about 320 million Chinese smokers in 2014. Hence the secrecy surrounding the moderately entertaining and informative China Tobacco Museum.

The museum’s exterior is decorated with muscular, fertile Mesoamericans, bare chested but nipple-less, their strength testament to tobacco’s healthful properties. You can take pictures of the building, but do it quickly, or you’ll upset the five bao’ans hurrying you inside. Guys, relax! Have a Double Happiness. They’re soothing, they keep you slim, and four out of five doctors recommend them.

Starting on the third floor, bypassing the Exhibition Hall for Minors, is a history of tobacco. There are wax figures of happy Native Americans and a model of Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa María, which brought him in contact with smokers on San Salvador Island in 1492.

Tobacco has been in China for about 500 years. Ming and Qing dynasty rulers banned planting and smoking it "repeatedly," because damn, that shit is moreish. They also ordered that addicts be executed. In the middle of the Qing dynasty, cigarettes were legalized and the British American Tobacco (BAT) Company was soon selling their choice selected Virginia leaves in China.

BAT was manufacturing and distributing 55 billion cigarettes per year in China by 1937, before the Japanese kicked them out. It was only once the sun had set on the occupiers from the land of the rising sun that China really got down to the business of making its own cigarettes.

The China Tobacco Museum’s exhibits include pictures and sculptures of some of China’s most famous smokers with their nicotine delivery systems of choice. Mao liked cigars, especially those made by a guy called Fan Guorong. He also enjoyed a mellow Zhong Hua with his pal Liu Shaoqi. Deng Xiaoping was more of a Panda cigarette man.

A waxwork of military commander Yang Jingyu shows him taking a moment out of fighting Japanese invaders around the Changbai Mountains and the Heilongjiang River to enjoy a revivifying smoke.

Another waxwork — who makes all these things? — features famed author and father of modern Chinese literature Lu Xun lighting up. Lu trained as a doctor before taking up writing and smoking full time. After suffering chronic tuberculosis and bronchitic asthma, which required 300mls of fluid to be drained from his lungs. He died, a hero and a smoker to the end, at the ripe old age of 55.

The museum goes on to show how tobacco is manufactured and administered. China produces a quarter of the world’s tobacco, which is manufactured by the China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC). It’s administered by the government’s State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA), which oversees 98 percent of the domestic market, and recently blocked a move to ban cigarette advertising. As it stands, tobacco companies can still sponsor sports events and schools.

Dioramas show putty people growing, harvesting and drying the crop. A bronze monument celebrates the officers — "heroes of the day, guards of the golden leaves" — who crack down on counterfeit cigarettes.

The best part of the museum is the displays of old cigarette cases, matchboxes and illustrated cigarette cards, which were placed in the packs to protect the cigarettes. Good graphics.

The museum also has large display cases of various pipes, pouches, and snuff bottles, including the smoking utensils used by China’s ethnic minorities. There’s a sort of informal gallery of Smoking Hot Chinese Smokers spread around the museum. Sure, their skin looks like mummified scrotum, but who’s to say they’ve aged prematurely? Probably celebrated their 100th birthdays with yak butter tea and a carton of Zhong Nan Hais.

Having brought so much happiness to the people of China, and with tobacco taxes contributing about a tenth of government revenue, it would be easy to inhale the mentholated myth that cigarette smoking is all good, and yet the museum does address the potential harms of cigarette smoking. It lists dangerous substances and states that “the polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon, N-volatile nitrosamine and phenol fraction may cause cancer.”

Beneath the sign on smoking’s alleged harms is a display case containing a book called “Tobacco and Tobacco Smoke: Studies in Experimental Carcinogenesis” (carcinogenesis means the creation of cancer) as well as cigarette packages depicting PLA soldiers. The connection is clear. Like a strong country, a strong tobacco industry requires sacrifice.

Which brings us back to the Mesoamericans. The Aztecs, Mayans, and others offered blood sacrifices to their gods, killing subjects mainly by decapitation and cutting out their still-beating-hearts, but also by immolation, shooting them with arrows, throwing them into sinkholes, burying them alive, disemboweling them, and tying them to balls of rubber for a game of Ōllamaliztli, or human ping pong.

In China, tobacco kills a million patriots each year.

For a listing of the China Tobacco Museum click here.