Anyone traveler who is particularly sensitive to tobacco smoke would not do well in rural Sichuan. An incredibly high percentage of men in Yilong County smoke, though as in urban China smoking is less common among women and among younger people. While public buses here are smoke-free, there don’t seem to be any other restrictions. Anywhere else that one goes in Yilong one can expect to encounter smokers. Whenever the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County runs a training session for local peasants at its headquarters in Jincheng, a thin haze envelops the room within the first hour of the session. While most people smoke cigarettes, a number of the older male peasants prefer a locally-grown tobacco leaf, which they roll into loose cigars themselves and usually smoke from the end of a thin metal pipe (see above picture).
There are a series of small rituals that the smokers of Yilong County engage in with one another that I have found interesting to watch. Whenever a smoker meets someone new, it is customary to offer them a cigarette. If one smoker joins a group of already gathered people, they will offer one to everyone in the group. There is no pressure for non-smokers to join in, however, and a single polite refusal is usually accepted. From then on, whenever one of the smokers in the group takes out a cigarette for himself he will again offer one to everyone in the group. This often leads to additional cigarettes being forced upon someone who already has a lit cigarette in his hand, which if the giver is insistent will result in a cigarette being placed “on deck” behind the receiver’s ear.
While smoking is currently an omnipresent fact of life in rural China, there are a few hints that the environment is beginning to change. In various town markets I have walked past a salesman hawking stop smoking aids to a small crowd of onlookers. The Chinese media has also reported that the government will pass a universal ban on smoking in public places at the beginning of next year However, opinions remain mixed as to how quickly or effectively the government will be able to alter such a deeply ingrained habit in rural China.