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.
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.
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.
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.
To this day, opium is still commonly smoked in some regions, most notably the remote areas occupied by Hill Tribes in Southeast Asia, but the elaborate material culture of the drug’s use is largely lost to us. Genuine opium antiques are rare, and we must piece together the experience of smoking in an opium den from the few reliable accounts that exist. Collecting the paraphernalia of opium smoking is an addiction in itself, and it is through these precious objects that we can imagine a lost world of languid courtesans as well as careworn coolies seeking an escape from the drudgery of their daily lives – the world of opium culture.