Opium in the East

Manchu woman with an opium pipe and layout. This photo was taken around the turn of the twentieth century.

Although opium has been used since at least the beginning of recorded history and has been known in China since the T’ang dynasty (618-906 CE), the distinctly Chinese method of smoking it did not evolve until after the introduction of tobacco smoking to China sometime during the sixteenth century. It is commonly believed that opium was initially mixed with tobacco. Over time, tobacco smoking became so prevalent in China that Chung Cheng, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, passed an edict against tobacco smoking in 1641.

Peter Lee, author of Opium Culture, theorizes that the prohibition of tobacco smoking led to the development of the Chinese style of smoking opium by itself. Due to the newfound scarcity of tobacco and the severity of the punishment for smoking it (death), the Chinese began to cast about for methods of smoking it alone. Due to its sticky latex consistency, opium could not be smoked alone in tobacco pipes, and a new method had to be invented for consuming it.

Headquarters of the British East India company in London. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had established a monopoly on the trade, and Indian growers were forbidden to sell opium to competitors.
Flag of the British East India Company.

An edict passed against the import and sale of opium in 1729 did little to curb the practice of smoking it, and the British colonization of Bengal, where opium could be grown in abundance, helped to further entrench the practice in Chinese society. Between 1820 and 1838, the British opium trade with China increased dramatically – tenfold, in fact – which resulted in the development of a triangular trade in Asia based on Indian opium. Eventually, opium, which the British produced at virtually no expense in India, became so popular in China that the Chinese treasury was drained, which led to the passage of a second edict, which (like the first) did little to curb its popularity.

Chinese tea plantation. By the eighteenth century, the British demand for Chinese tea had led to the development of a “triangular trade” in tea and opium.
Engraving of the Lee-rye-moon, a clipper ship built for the opium trade.
Opium pontoon.

In 1836, the Chinese emperor appointed Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu to curb the opium trade in Canton, where it was centered. Lin was not an opium smoker, and he viewed the habit as a social disgrace and an economic threat to China. In 1838, his blockade of the entire European trading community in Canton sparked the first Opium War, which led to several humiliating defeats of the Chinese by the West. Chinese junks were no match for the superior firepower of the British, and the Chinese emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the first of the “unequal treaties,” to avoid the outright occupation of China by foreign forces.

The Daoguang emperor (1782-1850) ruled China for thirty years, and he appointed Commissioner Tse-hsu to end the opium trade.

Fourteen years later, a second Opium War erupted, and China was once again defeated by the British. This time, the Treaty of Tientsin legalized the import of opium into China. Not only did imports of opium increase, but Chinese poppy cultivation increased rapidly to meet demand for the drug. By the late nineteenth century, opium culture in China reached its zenith, both in terms of consumption of the drug and the proliferation of the material culture surrounding it. Opium smoking was practiced at all levels of society, and the artistry of its paraphernalia reached heights which had never been seen before – and have not been seen since – in the culture of drug use.

Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu was appointed by the Daoguang emperor to curb the opium trade. Lin Tse-hsu ordered the destruction of approximately 2.6 million pounds of opium in 1839, an act which precipitated the first Opium War.
Lin Tse-hsu oversees the confiscation of opium pipes at Dafo temple.
Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi effectively controlled the Chinese government for almost fifty years until her death in 1908. Cixi, who was a smoker herself, instituted relatively successful measures to curb opium smoking while stipulating that it should be permitted for the elderly.

By the late nineteenth century, opium culture in China reached its zenith, both in terms of consumption of the drug and the proliferation of the material culture surrounding it. Opium smoking was practiced at all levels of society, and the artistry of its paraphernalia reached heights which had never been seen before – and have not been seen since – in the culture of drug use. Opium was ti mian, or fashionable and de rigueur among the higher classes. The culture of opium dens, or “flower-smoke” houses had fully matured, and Shanghai was the locus of China’s domestic opium trade, as well as the site of its greatest consumption. Opium smoking was commonly practiced in shuchang, or book theaters, where customers smoked while listening to stories. The bourgeoisie of Shanghai replaced Qing scholars as proponents of opium culture, and the city was awash with the drug.

The Bund, Shanghai, 1930’s.

Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalist government, was ambivalent about opium, but eventually decided on the practical policy of generating revenue by creating a government monopoly and selling opium to licensed addicts. The government’s monopoly was enforced and operated by the Green Gang in Shanghai, and by 1937, it was selling opium to at least four million licensed addicts. A tax was also levied on opium dens, and this aspect of the government’s monopoly was controlled almost entirely by Green Gang thugs.

With the Communist victory in 1949, many opium smokers were forced into exile, due to Mao’s draconian policy of forced detox. Many smokers fled to Taiwan, where they were required to register with the government, but many also wound up in various Southeast Asian countries where the “Chinese habit” was tolerated. Opium smoking continued to be relatively common in many countries in the region until the 1960’s and 70’s, when pressure from the US forced the passage of anti-opium laws.