Smoking in China: The Social Significance of cigarettes

Smoking in China: The Social Significance of cigarettes

A few weeks ago I have already written about China’s drinking culture. After being out for dinner with a bunch of old Chinese men yesterday, it reminded me again how much I hate people around me smoking.

For every smoker, China is a paradise. For people like me, however, China can turn into a nightmare.

I am a non-smoker, living in a country which is the world’s largest consumer and producer of tobacco, producing about 2.3 trillion cigarettes annually, which is 40 percent of the world’s total.

Hongkong implemented a sever anti-smoking law in 2007, and even though the Chinese government tried to follow suit by launching a campaign to ban smoking indoors at the beginning of this year, smoking is still very much alive in Mainland China (even indoors in public places!).

But apart from my personal despise for smoking, it is important to understand the significance cigarettes still have in China’s daily social life. Especially for people who come to China to do business.


Cigarettes as a common form of greeting and introduction

chinese play majong

No matter if it is a family gathering or an important business dinner, my husband always takes a pack of cigarettes with him. It is common for Chinese men to offer a cigarette as a greeting when first arriving at a place or meeting someone for the first time. Throughout a dinner, cigarettes are offered. People smoking, blowing the smoke in your face while you are eating, is a very common thing in China. Considered very rude in Germany, to light a cigarette during dinner time without prior asking the other people if it is ok, in China no one cares.

There is a chance that you will be stuck in one of those separate private rooms in a restaurant, confined within four walls and no window, and mostly smoking men. You should be prepared. As a guy there is no chance to decline the friendly offer of a cigarette without making the other person lose face (or think “what an arrogant foreigner”). So, if someone walks up to you, with a pack of cigarettes in his hands, offering you one, simply take one, smile, say thank you, and put it on the table or in your pocket “for later”. Usually they also offer you to help you light your cigarette, so you can always say you are keeping it for later.


It is definitely easier for girls. Even though, once in a while Chinese men will offer me a cigarette (thinking I am one of those very “open-minded” Western girls), I can simply decline and won’t be bothered again. Compared to one third of Chinese men who smoke, just 4% of the women smoke.

In the small town I live, smoking women are still rarely seen, and less socially accepted as in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However, apparently the number of female smokers is on the rise since women became the main target of tobacco firms.


What cigarette brand you smoke determines your social status

chinese cigarettes

If cigarettes are used for social occasions, to introduce yourself and do proper networking, it is no far reach to say that what kind of brand you smoke will determine your economic worth and your social status.

Fortunately for us, we never had to go to any meetings where it was necessary to take out the 800RMB pack of cigarettes, but I know out of experience that if you want to make a good impression at the next business dinner, you should not be stingy with the choice of cigarette brand you buy. If you are the CEO of a huge company, and you turn up to a dinner with an 8 RMB pack of cigarettes, you can be sure the gossip will be enormous, and maybe one of the nicer colleagues will suggest that someone in your position should make a better appearance. In other words: Stop being so cheap.

I am no cigarette expert, and I don’t strive to be one, but interestingly there are cigarettes called Huang He Lou 黄鹤楼 in China which cost as much as 8500RMB per carton. I cannot imagine anyone paying that kind of money for something ruining your health, but well, who am I to judge.


Anyhow, before coming to China you should be prepared. I do not support the traditional Chinese “smoking culture”, but living here gives me no choice, as to at least try to understand, and quietly accept. My husband does not smoke, and has done a great job in avoiding smoking without letting anyone lose face.


So, if you are a smoker and come to China, congratulations, you will love it here.

If you are a non-smoker, well, be polite, take the cigarette, put it away and ignore it.


Did you experience China’s “smoking culture”? What is your opinion? Should we just wildly refuse, even though knowing it is a significant part of social behavior?





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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

8 thoughts on “Smoking in China: The Social Significance of cigarettes

  1. I also experienced this and it bothered me to no end. We needed to get some documents signed by government officials in Wuhan, so the very first thing we needed to do–just to get an answer about which office to approach–was to hand out cigarettes. And the party favor at my Chinese wedding was a pack of cigarettes for everyone. I say foreigners should refuse cigarettes when offered them. Western trends are popular, so maybe this is one that can actually be positive.

    • I know! It is very frustrating! Sometimes I think it we should strictly refuse those customs but than the problem is, especially in smaller cities, you don’t get anywhere. We managed to refuse smoking itself! But my husband is always handing out cigarettes. It is also a good tactic because if you hand out cigarettes no one will offer you cigarettes… but yes, in the end it is a very annoying custom…

  2. I am no fan of smoking either and was a bit shocked in the beginning when visiting China for the first time. Especially nasty it is when they start smoking in a tiny elevator! Also taxi drivers smoking is terribly when they keep in summer all windows closed and only the AC is blowing.
    When my parents visited China they bought my wife’s godfather some expensive smokes for over 1000RMB as he drove us around everywhere.

    • Yes no one told me Chinese people smoke like craaaaaazy! Everytime we come back we buy packs of cigarettes to use during those “important” dinners haha the thing is though, here in this rural city most people don’t even like German cigarettes. They say they are to strong and taste weird, that’s why we always by cheap ones, just, you know to look good, but they don’t like any of them anyway… so why wast money.

  3. I can’t stand the smell of smoke either. When I was in China I got sick a lot because I can’t be around the smell. Especially in the computer cafes! There are so many kids smoking cigarettes all the time. Looks like the smoking habit starts early over there. :P

    • Oh yes I remember those internet cafes. Back when I was training at a kungfu school in the middle of no where, the only place we could access the internet was once a week when we were allowed to go to the city and visit one of those internet cafes! They are horrible! Some people even stay there over night!

  4. I’m an Australian and a former smoker and I have been vaping since last 2 years. After a couple of days spending in china suddenly I have started to feel an urge for cigarettes. I could not carry my vaporizer and the craving was killing me, It was so horrible.

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