Every other trip I’ve made to this part of China (well, to any part of China, really), nearly every male acquaintance, friend or relative has greeted me–even if we just saw each other a couple hours earlier–by offering me a cigarette. And whenever sitting down to a meal–whether an evening meal at someone’s home or a meal out at a restaurant–out came the bottles of “bai jiu,” white wine, or more succinctly, rice liquor. Potent stuff. “It’s good for two things, degreasing engines and killing brain cells.”

But apparently things are changing here in Anhai and in this area in general now.

Only a few people have offered me cigarettes, and they’re mostly older men: late 50’s to 70’s. Far fewer young local men are smoking here now, I’ve learned, or quitting, and–this is a complete first in China for me–when I was visiting a thirty-something factory owner a couple days ago, he actually ASKED IF I MINDED IF HE SMOKED. (If you’ve spent any time in China in the past 20 years, you no doubt fell out of your seat after reading that.)

And the bottles of bai jiu haven’t come out at a single meal. Instead, Chinese-made red wine is what the locals have developed a taste for now, and some brands are actually pretty decent. Others, well, they’ll do in a pinch if there’s nothing else sitting around but bai jiu.

All this, of course, might seem to create a bit of a social vacuum. If men aren’t offering each other cigarettes and drinking themselves into silly stupors with bai jiu when getting together at one another’s home or sitting down to talk business, then just what are they doing?

The answer contains a new twist on an old theme: around here, they’re now into seeing who makes the best pot of tea. And I don’t mean just putting the kettle on and pouring it out. There’s a skill to it, and a great deal of competitive pride, and all this seems to have revitalized the tea culture here in southeast Fujian province in a way that’s quite surprising to me. They’re even showing up at each other’s homes or businesses with their own tea, which formerly would have been unthinkably rude, and with small portable tea sets.

I’ll write more about the local method of making and drinking tea itself in a later post.