Chinese peasants tend to “eat” cigarettes (chiyan) rather than the standard “take a drag on” them (chouyan)—yet another instance of the practical blunt charm of their language.
Timothy Mo alludes to this locution in Sour Sweet:
“Eat things, eat things,” he said aloud, gesturing to the smoking plates in front of everyone but only lighting a cigarette for himself.
“You don’t eat things yourself, Grandpa?” This was Mui.
“I eat smoke,” he quipped, laughing immoderately at his own wit.
At a conference in Hong Kong (my book pp.333–4) I was delighted to introduce Li Manshan to the illustrious Taiwanese scholar C.K. Wang. Apart from his indefatigable energy in opening up the vast field of ritual studies in mainland China, he has a remarkable gift for finding a place for a surreptitious smoke (cf. the first poem in Homage to Tang poetry). In Hong Kong, where smoking laws are draconian, he would regularly lead us through labyrinthine corridors to some corner of an underground car park for a furtive fag.
This soon became part of my secret language with Li Manshan. Back in Yanggao, he was careful not to smoke in the presence of his baby grandson—so sometimes when I felt he needed a fag-break, I would suggest to him, “Shall we go and hold a meeting with Teacher Wang?”
For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, click here.