The word “opium” tends to conjure up an array of exotic images in the contemporary Western imagination: Chinese coolies, loose-limbed concubines, and houses of ill repute, yet few accounts of opium dens capture the reality of a habit which became as ingrained in Chinese culture as alcohol consumption is in the West.
The transformation of opium from medicinal to recreational use occurred largely as a result of the development of an efficient – and aesthetically pleasing – method of “smoking” (vaporizing) it somewhere in Asia following the introduction of the practice of smoking by Western traders in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the distinctly Chinese method of consuming opium using a special pipe designed to vaporize – not incinerate – opium had become a fixture of Chinese society.
The Chinese custom of opium “smoking,” with its lavish paraphernalia and erotic associations, alternately horrified and enticed Westerners, attracting condemnation from religious missionaries and inspiring numerous works of art and literature.
Although opium smoking has been virtually eradicated in the West, the image of smoky dens and luxurious dissipation continues to fascinate the modern public. The material culture of opium smoking, which reached artistic heights unlike those of any other drug, was mostly lost to eradication campaigns, and the few examples which survive command high prices and are coveted by collectors.
As collectors, we can only imagine what the original owners of these pipes and tools must have felt while using them and what their surroundings were like. How did opium smokers feel about the practice? Were they all addicts? How did society view their habits? The answers to these questions have ultimately been lost to the sands of time, but historical records paint of picture of opium culture which is quite unlike that of modern opioids.