Peter Hessler’s Country Driving illustrates the everyday life and culture of Chinese citizens through descriptive accounts of his immersive travels around the People’s Republic. While living in the rural village of Sancha, Hessler describes the idiosyncrasies of Chinese society; however, the social implications of cigarettes in China stand out as a differentiating feature of the country’s cultural landscape. While the health effects of smoking are recognized by the Chinese people, cigarettes are an essential part of business and social interaction, a reality supported by Hessler’s discussion with a young Wenzhou businessman who stated ” I know it’s not good for you, but I’m young so I don’t feel any effect. And its important for business. If you’re trying to pull guanxi with somebody, you have to take him out to dinner, and you need to smoke and drink with him” (Hessler, 233).
The development of “guanxi” in China, a term which represents “the system of social networks and influential relationships that facilitate business and other dealings” (Oxford Dictionary), frequently requires cigarettes and the brand of smokes one carries offers conveys the owner’s social status and importance. The Chinese cigarette market is state owned and the industry, which produces over 2.3 trillion cigarettes annually, features countless brands: Red Plum Blossom Whites (the cigarettes of Bejing peasants), Red Pagoda Mountain (the choice brand of average city folk), Zhongnanhai Lights (the smokes of Middle-class entrepreneurs), and State Express 555 (the brand for businessmen with a flair for the foreign) (Hessler, 232). Interactions between businessmen often include the exchange of cigarettes, and the quality of product a person carries delivers a number of silent social keys within the Chinese business community. Hessler notes “you offer a smoke at certain moments , and you receive them at others; the give-and-take establishes a level of communication. And sometimes the absence of an exchange marks boundaries” (232).
While the state-run tobacco industry creates a fascinating social atmosphere to observe, smoking in China leads to over one million deaths a year, a figure that is forecasted to double by 2025. The conflicting efforts of capitalist enterprise and socialist health service add contextual depth to cigarette smoking in China, with the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention releasing studies in 200 that showed the health-related costs of smoking vastly outweigh the revenue benefits. With the development of nationwide health insurance, the Chinese government’s revenue will be drawn upon to cover the damages the state-run tobacco industry creates. This political development may alter the cultural stigma surrounding cigarettes and could possibly lead to new forms of developing guanxi.