Betel nut, the dried fruit of the areca palm, often referred to as binglang in China, is enjoyed by people in some parts of China as it is in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. The fresh areca nut is chewed, sometimes wrapped in betel leaf or with tobacco and often mixed with lime, which helps bring out the active ingredients. . [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]

People that chew it say its sets the nervous system buzzing and warms the body, especially after a large banquet. “It helps with digestion and sobers you up, Xie Shuo, a cellphone repairman who said he consumed 100 pods a day, told the New York Times. His smile revealed blackened gums and stained teeth, an unsightly side effect of chewing the fruit. “I’m addicted to binglang, but I really love it so it not a problem,” he said. ***

In Hainan and Hunan Province, China a wide range of old and young people regularly consume betel nut. Xiangtan is a center of use, growing and processing. Most people there consume the dried variety of the nut by itself, without betel leaves. Some people also consume the areca nut in its raw, fresh form with or without the betel leaves. Betel nuts is often by old women walking the streets of hawking it from tables. Dried nuts can be found in most shops that sell tea, alcohol, and cigarettes. [Source: Wikipedia]

Betel nut use in China dates back at least to the Six Dynasties period (220-589), when it was a treasured gift for royalty. According to traditional Chinese medicine, betel nut aids digestion, removes plaque and expels worms. Many Chinese prefer to eat just the preserved husk, which seems to deter the fruit carcinogenic effects, according to recent studies. But local dentists and doctors denounce the practice, saying it can cause other mouth diseases.

Betel Nut Capital of China

Xiangtan, a city of one million residents in in Hunan Province, is China’s leading commercial producer of binglang. Its manufacturers import the fresh ingredients, mostly from the island province of Hainan, and sell the dried husks across Hunan and to a lesser extent elsewhere. The $1.18 billion industry employs more than 100,000 people in Xiangtan County. No wonder the city government has asked for the area seven factories and nearly 50 workshops to increase production to keep the local economy humming through the global financial crisis. But the addictive treat has a downside, ruining mouths when chewed and soiling sidewalks when spat out. [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]

Li Xuejun 46, a binglang manufacturer who named his brand Enormous Blessing. His grandmother fondness for the desiccated fruit inspired him to break into the business in the mid-1990s, and he now sells $410,000 of binglang annually, employing 200 people. Sales have grown about 50 percent a year, he said, which he attributes to heavier advertising and more children taking up the habit of chewing binglang in mint, cinnamon and orange flavors. ***

With a cigarette hanging from his lips and binglang shells crunching between his molars, Li lounged in the back room of a restaurant here and extolled the virtues of the plant that has showered the city with jobs and sport utility vehicles and has sent its children to top universities. ***

Hunan love affair with binglang began more than 300 years ago, when, according to local lore, a magistrate promoted it as a cure for a plague that was sweeping the region. During China economic reforms of the early 1980s, Xiangtan began turning the pastime into profit, and these days processes more than 700 tons each year, according to the Hunan Binglang Association. The city fathers speak of binglang as if it were a panacea for all of Xiangtan ills, from curing tapeworm to solving unemployment. ***

Betel Nut Chewers in China

The residents are also big time chewer. Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “If the residents of this city seem a bit lively on even the hottest days or most frigid nights, check their mouths. That minty scent and cracking sound come from a fragrant pick-me-up that men, women and even children chew from breakfast until bedtime.” [Source: Dan Levin for The New York Times, August 19, 2010 ***]

Experts affiliated with the World Health Organization estimate that 80 percent of Xiangtan residents chew binglang. Many start around 10 years old, picking up the habit from parents who believe that it has powerful health benefits. “Binglang has helped Xiangtan make a name for itself, said Li Lihua, 60, a veteran chewer of 40 years who sells bags of binglang for 75 cents each. “It like chewing gum but stronger, plus it kills parasites. ***

Standing outside a boisterous arcade, Pan Bozhe, 24, was gleefully chewing some Big Brother binglang during a visit home from Guangdong Province, where he works as an electronics salesman. “I really miss this stuff the rest of the year, since they don’t sell it in Shenzhen,” he said, his jaw working furiously. So whenever I come back to Xiangtan I chew as much as I can.” ***

Local medical experts have long been nudging the Xiangtan government to make binglang safer. Tang Jieqing, the vice director of the Xiangtan Stomatological Hospital, who has studied the area binglang habits for more than 10 years, believes that rates of mouth diseases like oral submucous fibrosis are higher in Xiangtan than elsewhere in China, and he wants the government to publicize binglang health risks. ***

“While the local government set a production standard in 2004, to be honest, it hasn’t been very supportive in a practical way, Dr. Tang said, citing the lack of package warnings or other consumer information. Noting the industry economic value, he added, our government can be supportive of binglang, but one should never say that it very healthy. ***

Snuff in Imperial China

Snuff was very popular in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) court. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The origins of snuff lie with the native peoples of South America. Snuff consists of quality tobacco leaves finely ground into a powder, to which floral and other fragrances are added. After fermentation, it is then sealed and aged. As opposed to rolled tobacco, which is burned to inhale its smoke, snuff is directly sniffed through the nostril. With its stimulating sneeze-inducing effect and unique aroma, snuff is said to clear the nasal passages. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Starting in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Western fashion of consuming snuff made its way into China. Snuff, with its medicinal and invigorating effects, and opulent snuff boxes became a medium in diplomatic gift-giving at the time. Snuff entered the Qing dynasty court by means of European missionaries, envoys, and merchants, being popular even with the emperor himself. The inhaling of snuff was a new trend in China, but differences in climate and habit made European snuff boxes unsuitable for use there, turning them into treasured curios of the emperor instead. Under the Kangxi Emperor, the Imperial Household began manufacturing snuff bottles featuring a small opening, large body, and stopper with a small spoon, representing a new vessel of the Qing court that was portable and airtight to preserve freshness. Generally speaking, during the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperors, Western painted enamelware and glass manufacturing techniques along with various forms of decoration were skillfully combined to create highly distinctive snuff bottles.

“From the Qianlong reign onwards, the production of small and exquisite snuff bottles had already become a fashion, with all kinds of craftsmanship techniques appearing in miniature proportions. Consequently, the usage of materials, forms, and techniques all reached new heights of skill and design. At the same time, snuff and their bottles became an indispensable part of social interaction in the Qing dynasty. Whether snuff bottles decorated the home, were used as gifts of reward, or worn to decorate oneself, all of them (including such miniature specialty accessories as the snuff funnel and dish) came to manifest social standing and to symbolize refined taste. Furthermore, Chinese snuff boxes fusing elements of East and West as well as Western snuff bottles catering to Chinese imperial taste, came to reflect the popularity of snuff in their own way through their respective production of vessels.

“In seventeenth-century Europe, after the consumption of snuff became popular and a form of social interaction, snuff boxes not only were a decorative accessory manifesting social status, but also a important form of diplomatic gift exchange. Many early Qing dynasty records mention European missionaries and envoys presenting snuff and snuff boxes to the Qing court as tribute. These gorgeous snuff boxes are often made of precious metals, such as gold and silver, and feature gems of various colors. They integrate various techniques, such as inlay, goldworking, and painted enamelware, even incorporating such marvels of Western technology as clocks, music boxes, and hygrometers, thus becoming prized curios of the Qing emperors.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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