China’s advertising industry rapidly modernized at the dawn of the twentieth century in the wake of major technological innovations across the manufacturing and distribution industries. Cigarette cards (yanhua 煙畫) emerged as one of many forms of advertising—along with print media staples ranging from newspapers, magazines, and posters—that played a significant part in endorsing new roles and behaviors for women during a period of great cultural change in tandem with their primary aim of boosting sales for consumer goods. The rapid growth and popularity of cigarette cards was a global phenomenon that began in the late nineteenth century and a China-specific study of how they depicted women in particular can provide valuable new insight on the late Qing and Republican eras. This study shows that Western-style cigarette cards were Sinified to suit the national market by producers that were willing to wade into major social/cultural issues that affected Chinese women of this era. Over the course of the first half of the century, cigarette cards mapped out vibrant new fashions of the post-Qing era, called out widespread but physically damaging beauty customs like foot and breast binding, hinted at freer sexual mores in a new era, and also encouraged women’s physical fitness as a component of patriotic efforts to gird the nation for war with Japan. Cigarette card advertising ultimately petered out and then came to a halt in the 1940s due to wartime paper shortages and disapproval from China’s stern incoming communist authorities. Nevertheless, they still provide an invaluable window into a half century’s worth of Chinese women’s history. They were shaped by several political, economic, and cultural influences while simultaneously acting as cheerleaders for women who wanted to break free from coercive aspects of the Confucian system and embrace the many new possibilities of modernity.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Mr. Li Desheng for sharing his precious cigarette card collection and supporting my research on Chinese cigarette cards.
Special thanks also go to Ms. Sarah Owens and Dr. Sean McLaughlin from Pogue Library for their technical assistance, and University Libraries' Dean Cris Ferguson for her support.
This project was sponsored by a CHFA (College of Humanities and Fine Arts) Research and Creative Activity Grant from Murray State University.
Author Contact: Dr. Selina J. Gao