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The question here is what would people have been smoking in Central and Eastern Asia in the 700's AD? I've got information about the derivation of my question from a movie, but the question is NOT about the movie. The movie is fictional entertainment, so full of inaccuracies, but raised the question in my mind.

I was recently watching a film on Netflix, "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" (2003) which, while it wasn't a documentary at all, was set in the North-Western region of China, I think in the Xinjiang and Quinghai provinces, on the borders with Tibet and India and around the Gobi Desert.

According to Wikipedia the film is set in approximately 700 AD, and features a group of warriors escorting and protecting a sacred Buddhist relic while it is being taken to a capitol city and the temples there. The relic is wanted by a Goturkic khanate and is under constant threat.

At one point in the film, the group are attacked by a band of the Goturkic warriors and head into the desert to escape detection. However, they are followed by the Goturks and one of the protagonists mentions (as translated from Chinese in the subtitles of the film)

They have been following us for two days...

I can smell their tobacco in the air.

The second line being a boast of his abilities as a soldier.

This boast got me thinking - there certainly wasn't tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) present in China in the 700's (introduced to the old world in the 1500's; the word "tobacco" is derived from the Carib name, though possibly from Arabic), so if people were smoking something, it wouldn't be that. I would guess that the Goturkic cultures had access via the Silk Road to the resources of the Middle-East and certainly parts of India and surrounding regions. This might mean access to Persian Tobacco (Nicotiana alata), which is used as a tobacco currently, but smoking only dates to around 1500 in the Middle East, and seems to have been introduced from China/Asia, so there's some evidence that smoking existed prior to the 1500's (soft paywall) - if it was common enough in Asia to be introduced elsewhere, it was probably fairly common. They definitely had access to Cannabis, which is native to the area in question, and there's even evidence that it was selectively grown for it's psychoactive properties (probable paywall), in the Pamir region (Tajikistan/NW Himalaya) for use in rituals, and was used for several thousand years before recorded history. In addition, there was also Opium (comments tell me that this was a later introduction). However, the sedative effects of both Cannabis and Opium would be unlikely for soldiers on a mission, I would have thought.

I've done some google searches and looked through PubMed (I'm a virologist, not a historian), but I can't find much on this topic. Quite a lot seems to have been done on American cultures and Western Europe, even the Middle-east, but not Asia.

So, the question is - what could they have been smoking at the time, and what is known about smoking in Asia over history? I'd be especially happy with answers centred on Eastern Asia, but Southern China and Mongolia/Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan area and Bhutan/Nepal areas would also be interesting.

Related question on this SE for Europe/Britain.

For those interested the timestamp on the movie is 1:21:27. I don't have any Chinese, but I can't hear anything resembling "tobacco" or the Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin "Yāncăo" in there.

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    First thing to ensure: is this from a Chinese fictional entertainment movie, and correctly translated (if its originally: 'smell their smoke'— meaning the evening grill/warming camp fire — much of the mystery goes up in vapour…)? Subtitles can be hilarious. Alternatively, to ask 'what were they 'smoking' in China round 700' might be interesting, anyway? Aug 2 at 23:32
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    Terribly unscientific, but for what it's worth: Robert van Gulik has a standard closing remark in his "Judge Dee" mystery novels where he says (translated from my german translations): "Judge Dee is a historical personality...living from 630 to 700 A. D...[Chinese] did not smoke in these days. Tobacco and Opium were introduced only centuries later to China."
    – ccprog
    Aug 2 at 23:40
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    @ccprog Very good. That's more or less what I was expecting. I assumed opium was there all along, but perhaps not. Wikipedia is unclear on it.
    – bob1
    Aug 2 at 23:51
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    'ὄπιον', is a stone-age 'South-German' invention (~'first', used throughout all of Eurasian civilisations (and 'barbaries'). Chandu smoke-opium is much more recent. But this will all boil down to 'smoking' definitions. Scythians are noted for their cannabis smoke rituals way BC, plain frankincense is as pychoactive as many other things; 'drinking' tobacco fumes is a New World thingy and brought terminology-change in conceptualisations. I think it helpful to explicitly state: 'options used for 'aerosolised/inhaled' 'drug' consumption' or sth like that? (Downers in war: ping me in chat…) Aug 3 at 0:20
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    I also suspect that this is a translation error, and that the translator misunderstood some other kind of smoke (e.g. campfire smoke or the smoke of some other drug) to be tobacco smoke. It's like that famous Chinese translation of Revenge of the Sith where "Jedi Council" was translated to the characters for "Presbyterian Church". It's an error, it doesn't mean that Obi-Wan is now some Scottish hillbilly.
    – Robert Columbia
    Aug 3 at 10:53

1 Answer 1

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Historically:

They wouldn't have been smoking anything.

This is some evidence that Arabian traders brough opium to Tang dynasty China, and one might reason it could've been accessible to steppe nomads. However, this would've been extremely costly and reserved for "medicinal" uses, not smoked by random soldiers on a hunt.

Folklore:

There is a legend of tobacco of some kind from the Tang dynasty, which fits this context. As the story goes, when Emperor Suzong - who took the throne in modern Ninxia - was moving back to the Imperial Capital (modern Xi'an), he took a rest stop on a hill. An old man passed by smoking from a pipe bag, and the Emperor found it enticingly refreshing. So the locality was ordered to send tobacco as tribute to the court ever since. And that's the story of how Zhengning County, in Ganshu, got started on its famous tobacco industry

The story is almost certainly absolutely apocryphal.

In the Movie:

I looked up the movie and the actual sentence was:

風颳過來的土煙味,我聞到了

The wind blows over the smell of [tǔyān, lit. soil/ground/earth smoke], I smell it.

A thousand years later, [tǔyān] would come to mean domestically produced opium, or alternatively, nightshade. For the context of the movie however, a historically accurate interpretation is the literal meaning: he's smelling the cloud of dust kicked up by the pursuant.

Whether the writers intended this is, of course, another question altogether.

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    Good answer. Great catch on the movie script. I was wondering if "nothing" might be the real answer. There is a long history of medicinal herbs that almost certainly would have been used in some contexts (e.g. Artemisia) not recreationally though AFAIK. It's very hard to find evidence of this sort for the ordinary folk in archaeology though.
    – bob1
    Aug 3 at 8:14
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    "Smoked" à la chandu pipe, cigs & blunts etc: indeed not, but burnt like incense & inhaling fumes is a possibility. One for a lot of substances. As for 'prohibitive cost': very true for purchased stuff at that time, but I gather we are presented with raiding nomads in the movie? That'd make that still costly in terms of risk, but less so monetarily? // Not sure I understand the translation bit correctly. Are there any further hints in it (for consumption/habits etc, or just this isolated 'pure dust from movment') Aug 3 at 12:00
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    @LаngLаngС tu means soil, ground, earth; yān mean smoke, vapor; by analogy, tǔyān is a cloud of dust. but it could also just be critical research fail from the writers
    – Semaphore
    Aug 3 at 21:45
  • @Semaphore would that mean that a TCM herb such as Consolida orientalis with the pinyin of Dong Fang Fei Yan Cao would mean it was used as a smoke, or refer to scent or maybe something else possibly? I know it's probably very hard to say - etymology is a difficult game in any language. Just curious - as found here
    – bob1
    Aug 4 at 4:49
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    Since I read that "opium was always called af-yong" (& early on used in 'soup' jisu/yingsu) I somehow suspect that the word used in movie has ambiguity in that regard, but that it is much amplified by western reading of it (plus here: mind set from frame of question?), and perhaps much less so for native speakers? (Not knowing the movie, the scene appears to be parallel to people chasing sewer workers, one uttering 'can smell the sh*t' and translators make via their choice of wors_ a 'Tegridy Farm'/Jamaica allusion?) Aug 5 at 9:43

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