The Opium Pipe and Layout

Bamboo opium pipe and Canton-style (all-glass) lamp.

At its most basic, the opium smoker’s setup consisted of a pipe, lamp, needle and tray. Of course, wealthy smokers often chose to deck their layouts out with all manner of specialized tools, from delicate needle holders, to enameled boxes, to long pipe-cleaning tools festooned with dangling ornaments. While some items of opium smoking paraphernalia, such as pillows and lamps, are relatively common, genuine opium pipes are scarce and often costly because they were often confiscated and publicly destroyed as part of eradication campaigns in both China and the West.

Although there are several methods of smoking opium, the Chinese style required a special type of pipe – one designed for vaporizing a special form of the drug, known as chandu, over a lamp. There are two distinct variations on the Chinese opium pipe, the “fist” pipe and the conventional pipe with its saddle about two thirds of the way down the pipe’s shaft.

“Fist-style” Chinese opium pipe.
Conventional Chinese opium pipe.

The latter were usually quite a bit longer, about twenty-two inches in length, and the extra length of pipe past the saddle was often used to store tools for smoking opium. The saddle was often made of paktong, a silver-colored alloy, although brass and silver were also used. These pipes were generally made of bamboo, which was regarded as a superior material by smokers due to its ability to become “seasoned” by countless pipes of chandu over time. Other porous materials, such as wood and ivory, were also used but were considered somewhat inferior. Ivory was, however, considered the preferred material for mouthpieces, although jade was often used on highly decorative pipes. One of the most distinctive features of the conventional Chinese opium pipe was the node against which the saddle was aligned. The node was often used to hang the pipe mouthpiece downwards when not in use to prevent clogging, and it was often capped in silver on particularly ornate pipes. The saddle of this type of pipe often bore simple designs, but the pipes of wealthy smokers often featured finely wrought repousse depicting animal motifs and the Eight Immortals.

Close-up of a pipe from the Bertholet collection. Animal motifs were common on opium smoking paraphernalia.

The “fist” pipe, a somewhat less common variation, was meant to look like the fist of the legendary Chinese general Li Yuanba wielding his melon hammer in battle, with the damper inserted in the fist at the end of the pipe; this type of pipe was generally a bit shorter, measuring about sixteen inches in length. The “fist” to which the damper was attached was usually carved from ivory, but horn, jade, paktong, and even cloisonné were also used.

The pipe damper was integral to the vaporization of opium, because it allowed the pill to be held in place over the lamp’s flame as the smoker inhaled the fragrant fumes. The damper allowed for the rapid expansion and cooling of the opium vapor, which caused most of the morphine to precipitate out of the vapor and be deposited inside of the damper as dross. The individual smoker could stoke his or her chandu with as much or as little dross as desired, resulting in very different experiences. A dross-laden pipe might render the smoker immobile, or a pipe of pure virgin chandu, relatively free from morphine, might result in an energizing experience.

The dampers used in opium pipes were generally made of clay, with Yixing clay being the preferred type, but they could also be made of carved jade and stone. Early examples of opium pipe dampers from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often rounded and globular in shape, while later examples demonstrate the shift towards bell-shaped and angular dampers with flat surfaces against which to roll a pill of opium. As opium smoking reached the zenith of its popularity in China towards the end of the nineteenth century, craftsmen also began making dampers in more elaborate shapes, such as crabs, frogs, and Buddhas.

Exquisite cloisonne lamp (minus the glass chimney) with matching needles.

The opium smoker’s layout also required a special type of oil-burning lamp over which to heat the drug and vaporize it. Contrary to common misconceptions, the opium lamp burned oil, not alcohol. The type of oil used varied depending on the locale, but its basic construction was the same – an oil reservoir encased in a ventilated base, topped by a chimney which funneled the flame’s heat to the “sweet spot” where the smoker held the pipe’s damper. Opium lamps could be simple, like those used by collies in low-class dens, or they could be ornamented with finely wrought silver details that dazzled the eyes of the smoker as he or she reclined next to it.

In addition to the basics – pipe, lamp, needles, and tray – there were many other tools which could be used to enhance the experience of smoking opium. Many smokers chose to store their chandu in finely made brass and silver boxes, some of which were decorated with elaborate enamel. In addition, smokers might own an array of tiny scrapers and picks for cleaning the pipe and dampers. Those who wished to have an assortment of dampers at the ready could display them on finely decorated stands which complemented delicately inlaid trays. In short, the experience of smoking opium could be as simple or as elaborate as the smoker wished.

While there was once a dearth of reliable information about opium smoking and antiques, there are, fortunately, several good books on the subject today. Please visit our Resources page for a list of credible books to aid those who would like to begin collecting opium antiques and those who are simply interested in learning more about the history of Chinese-style opium smoking.