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Country Cigars

Country Cigars

The old farmer stuffs his hands into the pockets of his blue track suit bottoms and nods.

“Yes, it’s best to pick the tobacco after a few days of sun because the plant is then more full of oil.”

Smiling, the old farmer hands me a small sickle.

“Right then… Enough talking, let’s get to it.”

So we do, cutting the six month old tobacco plants two inches from the root.

“Like people say, ‘Plucking a crop won’t help it grow’.”

Ten minutes later, our hands; thickly coated with oil, the tobacco patch is cleared. Sitting down upon the grassy ledge above the now bare square of red clay soil, the old farmer rolls then lights a big fat cigar. Exhaling, he looks at me and smiles.

“Go on then… Don’t just stand there.”

Laughing, I shake my head with mock disgust and get to picking up the plants and putting them into the two empty bamboo baskets which I carried up here.

The baskets filled, I slide a wooden stick through their rope handles. Crouching down, I then make sure that the stick is lying evenly across the dip between my shoulder blades and lift the baskets up.

The old man chuckles at the grimace that spreads across my face.

“Not so light now, are they? Eh?”

I shake my head.

No, they’re not, especially in this heat…

My t-shirt is soaked right through and the afternoon sun glares back at me from the brown waters of the paddy fields below.

Lowering my eyes, I concentrate on the narrow and uneven muddy path that leads down and through the fields, as we make our way back to the old man’s house. Passing locals giving me the thumbs up for my stumbling endeavours, as I do my best not to plunge headfirst in to the stepped fields on either side of us.

“You can’t buy that, you know?” says the old farmer walking leisurely behind me, still puffing on his hand-rolled cigar, “No, we only share our tobacco with like-minded friends.”

“Yes,” I nod.

I’ve seen that in the nearby village where I have been staying – the older generation swapping bags of dried tobacco leaves with one another then sampling and commenting on the various qualities of each other’s crop.

But right now, with sweat streaming out of every pore, I’m far more pleased to see the muddy path beneath my feet giving way to concrete slabs.

“Not far now,” the old farmer chuckles.

Sixty metres, up a gravel path, which leads past the fake Greco columns of his neigbours’s half-built three floor house, and on to a chicken coop surrounded courtyard that contains the old farmer’s home, which he built with his own hands.

“Set the baskets down over there.”

The old farmer motions to the concrete steps in front of the south-facing door. I put them down gladly and pull up a small, hand-made bamboo chair and sit down next to him.

“Smoke that,” the old farmer smiles, handing me a freshly rolled cigar, “You’ve earned it.”

“Thanks,” I nod and look at the long thick dark brown thing with golden specks along it.

Yes, it’s been a long time since I smoked one of these, and the last time I did, I’d stolen it…

Sticking the cigar in my mouth, I light it up, and, sure enough, the smoke goes flying straight down my cigarette trained throat, making me cough and hiccup incessantly.

Cracking up with laughter, the old man drops the knife that he’s been sharpening.

“Ha ha ha. That’s just what I did the first time my father gave me a cigar. Not the same at all is it?”

The old farmer shakes his head, while I cough away.

“No. You know, people are always trying to give me cigarettes, but once you start smoking these then nothing else will do, so I just politely hand them back to them and say, ‘Thank you my friend, but no.’”

He nods.

“You taste that?”

“Yes,” I do. It’s rich and sweet and makes my lips tingle.

It’s a lovely bit of puff. No doubt about it.

“That’s pure tobacco for you my friend. No chemicals, no filters, just leaves rolled up inside another leaf, the way that it’s supposed to be. ”

Nodding, the old farmer gets up from his chair, picks up his long knife then walks over to the bamboo baskets and starts to strip the leaves from the stalks of the freshly cut plants, while I sit and puff on my cigar, admiring the dexterity and speed with which the old farmer works.

Wild tobacco leaves

The leaves are stripped in next to no time.

Stringing up a line beneath the wooden eaves of the house, he then ties the stripped leaves to it and leaves them hanging there to dry. In a few weeks or so, they will turn from their present dark green colour to the golden brown of the dried and tied up bundles of tobacco leaves that are stored in the wicker baskets to the left of the front door.

Finished, the old farmer grabs one of the dried bundles and comes back over and sits down next to me.

“Now,” he winks, “I suppose you’d like to know how to roll one of these, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK,” he smiles, “Now…”

Untying the bundle of dried tobacco leaves, the old farmer takes four out from the centre. Stripping them from the top of the leaf down, he puts them together for the core of the cigar. Then he takes out another leaf, but rather than stripping it, the old farmer puts it into his hands and breathes all over it.

“You see?” he nods, “You see how it sucks up the moisture? Yes, it’s important that the outside leaf you roll it in is moist. If it is too dry though, don’t worry, you can always spray it with tea or water.”

Happy now with the leaf’s dampness, the old farmer places the four stripped parts of leave inside the moist leaf and rolls it up at a slight angle, twisting it up from the bottom of the leaf as he does.

“There you go,” he says, twirling both ends of the finished cigar tight, “Now, you have a go.”

It took him about a minute.

It takes me about thirty, much to his amusement. I think the problem is that I keep looking for the gum.

“Finally,” the old farmer smiles, getting up off his chair, “Now, all we need is something to go with these. Do you fancy a drink before you set off my friend?”

“Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?”

“Indeed it would,” laughs the old farmer, patting me on the shoulder, “Indeed it would…”

From inside, the old farmer fetches a yellow petrol can full of home-made rice wine, then points to the far side of the house.

“Let’s go round the back, the view is much better there.”

Indeed, it is.

Shaded by the tall bamboo that surrounds it, the small concrete terrace looks out over a green sway of paddy fields, ripening corn and bamboo groves, our only company – white cranes, ducks and the odd passing dog.

There is no need for words.

Basking in the view, we sit in silence and drink and smoke, until darkness begins to fall and the cooling air around us comes alive to the sound of croaks, cicadas and the chirrup of birds.

What I’m going to do when I head back to the bustle of the city, I neither know nor care.

Right now, it really doesn’t matter.

Sitting here, sated by nature’s tranquility and puffing on this country cigar, I am fatter and richer than any king or emperor.


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April 6 1932 Taneda Santoka

Translated by Burton Watson

For All My Walking, Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santoka,

with Excerpts from His Diary 

Columbia University Press 2003

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Weigh This Well - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: A Beggar at Mt. Luofu (Detail) by Su Liupeng (1796 – 1892)

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.”

(from the preface to Forever China)

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

… China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:


I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.


Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.


Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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In travelling through Ireland a stranger is very frequently puzzled by the singular ways, and especially by the idiomatic equivocation characteristic of every Irish peasant. Some years back, more particularly, these men were certainly originals quite unlike any other people whatever. Many an hour of curious entertainment has been afforded me by their eccentricities; yet though always fond of prying into the remote sources of these national peculiarities, I must frankly confess that, with all my pains, I never was able to develop half of them, except by one sweeping observation namely, that the brains and tongues of the Irish are somehow differently formed or furnished from those of other people.

One general hint which I beg to impress upon all travellers in Hibernia, is the following: that if they shew a disposition towards kindness, together with a moderate familiarity, and affect to be inquisitive, whether so or not, the Irish peasant will outdo them tenfold in every one of these dispositions. But if a man is haughty and overbearing, he had better take care of himself.

I have often heard it remarked and complained of by travellers and strangers, that they never could get a true answer from any Irish peasant as to distances when on a journey. For many years I myself thought it most unaccountable. If you meet a peasant on your journey and ask him how far, for instance, to Ballinrobe? he will probably say it is “three short miles.” You travel on, and are informed by the next peasant you meet, that it is “five long miles.” On you go, and the next will tell “your honour” it is “four miles, or about that same.” The fourth will swear “if your honour stops at three miles you’ll never get there!” But on pointing to a town just before you, and inquiring what place that is, he replies,

Oh! plaze your honour, that’s Ballinrobe, sure enough!”

Why, you said it was more than three miles off!”

Oh yes! to be sure and sartain, that’s from my own cabin, plaze your honour. We’re no scholards in this country. Arrah! how can we tell any distance, plaze your honour, but from our own little cabins? Nobody but the schoolmaster knows that, plaze your honour.”

Thus is the mystery unravelled. When you ask any peasant the distance of the place you require, he never computes it from where you then are, but from his own cabin; so that if you asked 20, in all probability you would have as many different answers, and not one of them correct. But it is to be observed, that frequently you can get no reply at all, unless you understand Irish.

In parts of Kerry and Mayo, however, I have met with peasants who speak Latin not badly. On the election of Sir John Brown for the County of Mayo, Counsellor Thomas Moore and I went down as his counsel. The weather was desperately severe. At a solitary inn, where we were obliged to stop for horses, we requested dinner, upon which the waiter laid a cloth that certainly exhibited every species of dirt ever invented. We called, and remonstrating with him, ordered a clean cloth. He was a low, fat fellow, with a countenance perfectly immovable, and seeming to have scarcely a single muscle in it. He nodded, and on our return to the room, which we had quitted during the interval, we found, instead of a clean cloth, that he had only folded up the filthy one into the thickness of a cushion. We now scolded away in good earnest. He looked at us with the greatest sang froid; and said sententiously: “Nemo me impune lacessit.

He kept his word; when we had proceeded about four miles in deep snow, and through a desperate night, on a bleak road, one of the wheels came off the carriage and down we went! We were at least two miles from any house. The driver cursed in Irish Michael the waiter, who, he said, had put a new wheel upon the carriage, which had turned out to be an old one, and had broken to pieces. We had to march through the snow to a wretched cottage, and sit up all night to get a genuine new wheel ready for the morning.

The Irish peasant also never answers any question directly: in some districts, if you ask him where such a gentleman’s house is, he will point and reply, “Does your honour see that large house there all amongst the trees, with a green field before it?” You answer, “Yes.” “Well,says he, “plaze your honour that’s not it. But do you see the big brick house with the cowhouses by the side of that same, and a pond of water?” “Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it. But, if you plaze, look quite to the right of that same house, and you’ll see the top of a castle amongst the trees there, with a road going down to it betune the bushes.”


Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it neither; but if your honour will come down this bit of a road a couple of miles I’ll shew it you sure enough and if your honour’s in a hurry I can run on hot foot and tell the squire your honour’s galloping after me. Ah! who shall I tell the squire, plaze your honour, is coming to see him? He’s my own landlord, God save his honour day and night!”

Read more from the Personal Sketches and Recollections of Jonah Barrington (1827) here.

Download a PDF file from the Internet Archive here.

Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) was an Irish judge, politician and writer. His memoirs contain “scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. His Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background.” However, they must be taken with a large grain of salt…

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