In rural China the etiquette of exchanging cigarettes and lighting up for each other is an important skill for the fieldworker to acquire, confirming social bonds (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.24). Generally, when two or more men meet they compete to be first to get their offer accepted. The first offer is vehemently rejected; the giver is then obliged to insist until the cigarette is reluctantly accepted. The word thankyou is never used. Some shoving may be involved. Then the two compete to be first to proffer a light; as the recipient lights up, he expresses appreciation by touching the lighter’s hand with the little finger of the hand holding the cigarette, and the man with the lighter takes care to keep the flame going as he lights his own. I learn to emulate Li Manshan’s ritual of reluctantly accepting a cigarette, his frown, his look of confusion—“What is this funny little tubular object that is being offered to me, and how should I react?”
With the Li family Daoists we’ve developed a classification of cigarettes according to price, which varies widely. Using the class status language of land reform, we call the posh brands “rich-peasant fags”—the cheaper ones are for wannabe poor peasants like me.
Police squad provides another useful idée fixe on the importance of local knowledge in fieldwork:
The Greek subtitles inadvertently add a further Pythonesque touch. Though perhaps less so if you’re Greek.
My current favourite fieldwork tip heads this post.