The Merry Smoking Men of China: 1940s Robin Hood Cigarettes Hand Fan

1940s Chinese hand fan advertisement for "Robin Hood" cigarettes by the Waterman’s Tobacco Co. (中國華明烟公司) from Shanghai, China. From the MOFBA collection.
1940s Chinese hand fan advertisement for "Robin Hood" cigarettes by the Waterman’s Tobacco Co. (中國華明烟公司) from Shanghai, China. From the MOFBA collection.

Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw from English folklore, famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. This 1940s hand fan advertisement for cigarettes named after the swashbuckling hero is from our collection and shows that the iconic character even stole the hearts and minds of audiences in faraway China.

While the tale of Robin Hood has endured through the ages, it experienced a notable resurgence in the 1920s and 30s, particularly in the realm of cinema.


The first theatrical feature telling the story of the celebrated bandit was the 1922 silent film of the same name. It was one of the most expensive movies of the 1920s and became a smash hit.


At that time Shanghai already had a thriving cinema culture and the film starring Douglas Fairbanks finally made its way to China in January 1924, when it was shown over several weeks at the Carlton and Isis theatres.

In 1938, the character made a triumphant return to the big screen in the Technicolor spectacle "The Adventures of Robin Hood," starring Errol Flynn.


This lavish production brought Robin Hood's world to life with sound and in vibrant color, enchanting audiences with its breathtaking visuals and exhilarating action sequences. To this day it is considered by many to be the best Robin Hood movie.


Its China premier was on June 29th 1938 at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. 

To promote it a movie book was issued, sponsored by German pharmaceutical company Bayer, for the first time associating the legendary figure with brand advertising in China.


During times of the Sino-Japanese War, the story of a mythical hero leading a band of merry men in acts of defiance against corrupt officials and oppressive nobility became immensely popular among Chinese audiences.


In December of 1938 the film was re-issued and shown again for several weeks at the Shanghai Metropol Theatre. 

The worldwide success of the film ignited a cultural phenomenon, extending far beyond movie theatres and permeating various aspects of popular culture. Companies seized the opportunity to capitalize on Robin Hood's widespread appeal, producing a myriad of branded merchandise ranging from toys and books to clothing and food items. 


In China, the Waterman’s Tobacco Co. (中國華明烟公司) boldly launched “Robin Hood” branded cigarettes around March 1942. This is remarkable since this was already during a time when the Shanghai International Settlement was occupied by the Japanese army. 

It however didn’t take long for the Japanese authorities to realize the legendary hero’s symbolism for adventure, justice, and rebellion and “Robin Hood” cigarettes were quickly stubbed out again.


Waterman’s instead replaced them with the apparently less controversial “Chieftain” brand.


This makes our hand fan an even rarer artefact from a very short-lived adventure of the iconic English folk hero in wartime China. 

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