China Trade

The Art and Commerce of Tobacco

Half a century ago, the view from the offices of the Union Assurance Company of Canton, on the west bank of the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai, might have resembled the landscape captured on the Ming Dynasty screen that decorates the west wall of the Thomas Reading Room in Duke's Lilly Library: a pastoral scene, dotted with trees and flowers. Then came Progress and with it, the Oriental Pearl television tower, the flashing lights, and the skyscrapers that have made the east bank of the Huangpu the symbol of a new China.

The Union Assurance Company's neoclassical headquarters, which stands at the corner of Guangdong Road and the Bund, the famous avenue that runs along the river, contains in its ornately carved cornices and parquet floors a micro-history of modern China. Completed in 1915, seven stories tall, it was the first building in China to employ a structural steel frame. It housed tenants like the Mercantile Bank of India, as the area around it became a thriving center of commercial and financial activity. After the Communists took over in 1949, it languished, along with the Bund, which came to be regarded as a symbol of foreign encroachment.

Then, in 2001, Handel Lee, a Chinese-American lawyer and developer, hatched a plan to turn the building into a new incarnation of the cosmopolitanism the Bund had once represented. Celebrity architect Michael Graves was brought in to give the structure a makeover. Where in the Twenties and Thirties there had been jazz clubs and trading houses, Graves envisioned space for an Evian spa, a Jean-Georges restaurant, and a gallery--the Shanghai Gallery of Art--that would show works by the stars of Chinese contemporary art.

Smoking habits in early twenty-first-century China have everything to do with the Duke tobacco monopoly in early twentieth-century China. The well-worn story, retold in a history of Big Tobacco in China by Sherman Cochran, goes that James B. Duke's first words upon learning of the invention of the cigarette-rolling machine in 1881 were, "Bring me an atlas!" A company employee recalled that Duke "turned over the leaves looking not at the maps but at the bottom, until he came to the legend, 'Pop. 430,000,000.' 'That,' he said, 'is where we are going to sell cigarettes.'""Three on the Bund," as the renovated complex is called, sparked headlines when it opened in late 2003, hailing the triumphant return of commercial chic to the main street of the erstwhile "Paris of the East." But traces of the glamorous nexus of wealth and style once centered on that strip of regal stone buildings live on in much more than the upscale restaurants and boutiques now housed in those same structures. In the remotest villages of the most mountainous provinces, the Bund's early twentieth-century impact can still be felt--and smelled--in the 1.8-trillion cigarettes smoked annually by 67 percent of the nation's male population. (Only about 4 percent of Chinese women smoke.)

Sell they did. In 1905, the British-American Tobacco Company, the global cigarette-distribution alliance comprising James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company and England's Imperial Tobacco Company, set up shop in China. A scant two years later, the company sold a record 1.3-million cigarettes to Chinese smokers.

Duke's success in China can be largely attributed to James Augustus Thomas, the son of a Confederate colonel turned itinerant tobacco peddler in Rockingham County, North Carolina. Thomas, the eponym of that room in Lilly Library, was James B. Duke's man in China for more than two decades. He used his own brand of mercantile ingenuity, developing innovative, strategic merchandising and marketing campaigns, to quickly turn an exotic, foreign object--the cigarette--into a commonplace one.

"I ... conceived the idea of making a packet of cigarettes that could be purchased with one of these Chinese coins," Thomas wrote in his memoir A Pioneer Tobacco Merchant in the Orient, published by Duke University Press in 1928. He was referring to the "copper cash" then circulating in a beleaguered economy depleted of hard-currency reserves. "I would allow a profit for the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retailer; and take into consideration the cost, freight, insurance to China, and the Chinese government duty. The consumer need only exchange his coin for a packet of our cigarette."

After taking the reins as managing director of BAT in China in 1905, Thomas built a massive operation at breakneck speed. Cigarette consumption increased twenty-fold under his directorship. By 1919, BAT was producing more than 243-million cigarettes a week in Shanghai alone.

By 1920, China was smoking 25-billion cigarettes a year to the U.S.'s 45 billion, and profits from the China market accounted for more than a third of the company's total worldwide take. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the U.S. exported more cigarettes to China than to all other foreign markets combined. "Largely as a result of Chinese consumption of cigarettes made from American tobacco," the Cyclopedia of American Biography would note in a 1938 entry on Thomas, "the price paid to tobacco growers in the United States increased from four to twenty-five cents a pound." BAT's operations in China, headquartered just off the Bund, only a block or two from the Union Assurance Company building, in the International Settlement, remain among the most profitable foreign-business ventures ever launched in a market known as much for its potential as for its impenetrability.

Xu Bing: work included historical text printed on pressed tobacco leaves

Xu Bing: work included historical text printed on pressed tobacco leaves
Jim Wallace

Szechwan [Sichuan] Province ... has little contact with the rest of the world and is to all intents and purposes a self-contained country," Thomas noted in his memoir. It was in this "self-contained country" that Xu Bing, arguably the most famous Chinese modern artist working today, was born in 1955--just three years after BAT's assets were seized by the newly ascendant People's Republic government. One afternoon last August, I attended the opening of Xu Bing's Tobacco Project: Shanghai, in the new gallery of art on the Bund. The gallery that afternoon smelled like East Campus when the wind was right, and the scent of cured tobacco from downtown warehouses (now, themselves, transmogrified by developers) wafted across the quad. The effect in Shanghai was more concentrated: As the centerpiece of his display, Xu Bing had arranged 660,000 domestically produced "Fortune" brand cigarettes in imitation of a tiger-skin rug, the stripes created by orienting the filters up or down. The reference was to the elegant furnishings that populated the homes of merchants, like Thomas, who had once lived nearby.

The Shanghai exhibition continued a project Xu Bing had begun in November 2000, when Tobacco Project: Durham, curated by Duke art history professor Stanley Abe, opened in two venues: the foyer of Perkins Library and the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum. That project--a series of objects and installations meditating on the complex web of connections binding the tobacco industry, the university, China, and the artist himself--is considered among Xu Bing's best works.

In the Perkins foyer, Xu placed an oversized book made of pressed tobacco leaves, printed with text from historian Sherman Cochran's 1980 study of BAT, Big Business in China: Sino-Foreign Rivalry in the Cigarette Industry, 1890-1930. The display cases, generally occupied by special-collections documents celebrating campus history or achievements, were filled with a cadre of artworks masquerading as artifacts. As University of Chicago art historian Wu Hung later wrote, "Xu Bing neither planned it as a coherent visual display nor emphasized the thematic continuity between individual works. Instead, tobacco inspired him to create a series of disparate objects and installations, each pointing to a specific memory or meditation on general implications of the cigarette to human life." These objects included red tin cases of the Chunghua brand cigarette preferred by Mao Zedong, stamped with lines of Tang-dynasty poetry or excerpts from the "little red book" of Mao quotations, which they resembled.

Shanghai show: Mandarin characters in neon spell out 1920s ad copy

Shanghai show: Mandarin characters in neon spell out 1920s ad copy
Philip Tinari

In a tobacco packhouse at the Duke Homestead, he installed a white neon sign, rendering in a cursive script the single word "Longing." The word glowed amid drying tobacco leaves and dry ice. On the shed's exterior, he projected medical records documenting his father's slow death from lung cancer. In a gallery inside the main museum building, he let an extremely long cigarette burn slowly atop a reproduction of the famous Song Dynasty hand scroll painting Festival Along the River. "The charcoal scar left on the painting's surface not only alludes to the damage caused by smoking, but also registers the passage of time--a shared element in both smoking a cigarette and viewing a traditional handscroll," Wu Hung noted.

Nearly all of the works on display in Shanghai picked up where Tobacco Project: Durham had left off. A new oversized book made of pressed tobacco leaves graced the entrance (the original had ended up on the men's basketball championship victory bonfire in April 2001). The text of the Shanghai version had been translated into Chinese; "An American Multinational Corporation in China," read one boldfaced subhead. The "artifacts" from the Perkins Library display cases were re-installed in Shanghai, this time framing one long display case showing a string of documents that told the quirky and convincing story of the dynamics at work behind the exhibition--and behind the larger history of the exhibition. Papers spanning a century, documenting first BAT's plans to commence operations in China, then the company's profits in China, then James B. Duke's founding grant to make Trinity College into Duke University, then Duke University's invitation to Xu Bing to stage an exhibition on campus, and finally the university's purchase of some of the works Xu Bing produced for that exhibition, were linked by little red arrows.

This sort of witty, detached joking was only one part of Tobacco Project's messages. Because of his father's death, cigarettes were also deeply sentimental objects to Xu Bing. In Shanghai, in place of the word "Longing" that had appeared in the packhouse at Duke Homestead, Xu Bing installed a new neon work that spelled out copy from a 1920s BAT advertisement in elegant, semi-classical Mandarin. The "Longing" of Durham now stood in complicated relation to the ad copy of Shanghai, text that looked to produce a longing for cigarettes, even as it reflected a longing for profit. The Chinese, it seemed, was a loose translation of the English.

Of all the works on display in Shanghai that afternoon, one spoke most powerfully to the current, and constantly changing, state of affairs in China today. For Window on Pudong, Xu Bing had hired art students to paint the gallery's walls and windows with shadowy monochromatic outlines of what they might have looked out upon when the building was first constructed in 1915, taken from historical photographs. Thus, the iconic millennial skyline across the river could be viewed only through the prism of the modest waterfront from which it had grown. Looking up the Bund, one saw the clock tower of the Peace Hotel through the outline of the same building seven decades earlier. This vista, it seemed, was one of the few in China not to have changed substantially in that time. And yet something was different: From the clock tower now poked a pole, and upon it, per city ordinance, flew the five-star red flag of the People's Republic.

Shanghai show:

Shanghai show:"tiger-skin" carpet of 660,000 cigarettes symbolizes rich furnishings of merchants' houses
Shanghai Gallery of Art

Sometime during the summer of 1920, James A. Thomas wrote to the former American Consul-General in Shanghai, James L. Rodgers, at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, "You are quite correct in assuming that the development of China is going to be the biggest proposition that has happened in the world for the last fifty years, and this development will take place in the next ten or fifteen years. China will become a creditor nation within the next five or six years." Eighty-four years later, Thomas' prediction rings truer than ever: Chinese government lending to the U.S. totaled more than $200 billion in 2004 alone, and will probably reach $300 billion for 2005.

And so, against this historical background of a newly resurgent China and the physical background of Xu Bing's painted windows, a panel of Chinese academics and art critics sat down, the day after the opening, to a panel discussion on consumer culture in 1920s Shanghai, artistic practice in 2000s Shanghai, and the founding of a major university, with a tobacco fortune gleaned partially from China, in the American Southeast.

The historical contingencies binding the tobacco trade, China, and Duke were more than incidental or curious, the panel argued. They were at the very heart of the everyday reality they had created over the long twentieth century. Now, China was surging, and the standard interpretation was in need of some revision. The debate itself--elegant, nuanced, and entirely in Mandarin--was evidence of such revision. It was, in fact, the precise inverse of a graduate seminar in Chinese history at Duke: Instead of discussing China, in English and in Durham, they were discussing Duke, in Chinese and in Shanghai. For me, accustomed to the unspoken privilege of the American intelligentsia to study the language or history of whichever region one likes, the dynamic that afternoon was foreign and unsettling.

Close up:carpet of 660,000 cigarettes

Yet in this momentary subversion of the political and epistemological orthodoxies that determine who has the power to study, and ultimately speak for, whom, I glimpsed the future. The panelists were a smattering of contemporary China's best and brightest, many of them holders of American Ph.D.s. There was Feng Boyi, a respected curator of the Beijing avant-garde who holds on to a sinecure with the state-run China Artists Association for the benefits and prestige as his wife plays the Chinese capital markets. There was Lydia Liu, whose book Translingual Practice had re-made the field of Chinese literary studies, and who now spends summers away from the University of Michigan, where she holds an endowed chair, to run a critical-theory academy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. They were, in short, exactly the type of people one might expect to find leading a liberal civil society, if one still bought into the optimistic doctrine that economic growth must lead ultimately to American-style democracy.

But these thinkers' first allegiance was to China and its system, however imperfect. It was the nation that had nurtured them, the nation they would nurture into increasing power and prominence as the American order that first flourished under Thomas and the Dukes and their cohort seemed to be fading.

In the years leading to the First World War, Thomas insistently recommended to his friends Norman Angell's 1910 polemic The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relations of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantages. In it, Angell decries the Anglo-German arms race, arguing that, in an age when "international finance has become so interdependent and so interwoven with trade and industry, ... war, even when victorious, can no longer achieve those aims for which peoples strive." Eighty-five years later, his warnings still seem worth heeding. Looking around a room of Chinese who had taken the very best America had to offer, I realized, none was on "our" side. China is resolutely, doggedly, its own; and Durham, today, is not Shanghai.

I thought back to the day in March 2000 when, as a Duke junior, I had met Xu Bing at Raleigh-Durham Airport and had driven him to campus for the discussions that led to Tobacco Project: Durham. I thought about the car ride, and how we had listened to the music I had so carefully chosen, the Cuban rhythms of the Buena Vista Social Club. It seemed somehow appropriate, as if to say that Communism was on the wane, and the NASDAQ on the rise. I thought of September 11, when he watched the towers fall from his studio across the East River, and I woke up in an apartment in the university district of northwest Beijing, watching cranes put together concrete shells of pink apartment buildings in total indifference to what had happened. I thought of the lunch we ate a few months later, a lunch of frogs and bitter melon in a shabby restaurant by the Peking University west gate, since torn down to make way for a technology park.

And I thought of Thomas' meditation in a letter to his brother in July 1915, shortly after the Lusitania had been sunk, as the world prepared for the same sort of modern shakedown we are living through once again. "America is prosperous," Thomas wrote, "but I think we will have to have more army and navy for the reason that everybody will commence to throw bricks at us because we are so prosperous."

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