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.
Today, only remnants of the rich culture that once accompanied opium smoking remain, but its history has much to teach modern society. The story of opium is not just one of intoxication and lavish debauchery, but one of major tectonic shifts in global politics which continue to haunt relations between the East and the West today. Contemporary debates about the opioid crisis in the US are often woefully uniformed from a historical perspective, and the history of opium smoking teaches us important lessons about harm reduction and the counterproductive nature of modern attitudes toward substance use and addiction. Although the history of opium smoking may seem arcane nowadays, it is a subject which should still interest us all.