There are nearly as many smokers in China as there are Americans in the United States. That staggering statistic might help explain the central role cigarettes play in traditional Chinese weddings. According to custom, the bride expresses her gratitude to guests by lighting a cigarette for each man invited, then joins her groom in a series of comical cigarette smoking games for good luck.
The French collector Thomas Sauvin stumbled on the tradition in 2009 while sifting through a collection of half a million negatives. He had salvaged them in bulk from a Beijing recycling plant and was fascinated by their intimate depictions of daily life in China. The cigarette scenes — compiled in the quirky, disconcerting photobook Until Death Do Us Part (Jiazazhi Press) — topped them all. There were perfectly coiffed brides holding lighters for wedding guests, couples puffing away on DIY smoke bongs, and children smiling sheepishly as they took their first drag.
As fun as it all looks, many viewers will be relieved to know the custom has fallen out of vogue. Beijing recently banned public smoking, and modern brides have begun opting for smoke-free weddings. That’s good news for the 100,000 people who die every year in China from second-hand smoke. For them, Sauvin’s photographs might represent a cultural tradition they’d rather leave behind.