Pipe-Smoking Culture in East Asia

Although there is some debate about when tobacco first arrived in Asia with European merchants, the earliest archaeological evidence suggests that the practice of smoking tobacco was known in Asia by 1550 – within six decades of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The entry of tobacco into China via the south-west and east is well documented, and other products from the New World, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, entered via the same channels. As Zheng Yangwen speculates, the widespread naturalization of tobacco (pipe) smoking may have facilitated and paved the way for the later development of Chinese-style opium smoking. Within a hundred years, tobacco smoking had become widespread, and the scholar-official Zeng Yuwang observed that,

It (tobacco smoking) has extended to the common folks; eight out of ten is the proportion for the past twenty years.

An account from Ye Mengzhu suggests that the psychoactive properties of nicotine were known by the Chinese:

Tobacco originally came from Fujian. When I was small, I heard my grandfather say ‘Fujian has tobacco; inhaling it can make one drunk. It is also called baigan (white spirit); but we do not have it here.

Chinese woman posing with a tobacco pipe, circa 1900.

Tobacco cultivation eventually became widespread by the end of the Ming dynasty, fostering a pipe culture in China even before the development of opium smoking. Eventually, both tobacco and opium became subsumed under the culture of yan. It is widely believed that a new method of ingesting opium – smoking – originated in Java, where the confluence of Dutch traders and Chinese sojourners provided fertile ground for the practice of smoking it in a pipe to develop. The physician Engelbert Kaempfer noted the practice of diluting opium and smoking it along with tobacco in a water pipe in 1689, and by the early eighteenth century, Chinese living in Taiwan had begun to experiment with it as well. As Huang Shujing noted,

The opium smoke is made with hemp, kudzu vine, and shredded opium paste slices boiled in a copper pan. Mix opium with tobacco, take a bamboo pipe, and stuff it with palm slices.

Memoirs from this period indicate that the evolution of opium smoking was already well underway by this time, and Shujing’s observation that opium smoke was ‘several times better than tobacco’ indicates that it was being smoked by itself. By the nineteenth century, when the Chinese style of opium smoking had reached its apogee, pipe-making had become an art, as this quote from Yang Enshou indicates:

As for the smoking guns (pipes), luxurious ones come in jade and daimao (exquisite tortoiseshell), plain ones in square of mottled bamboo. Sometimes you would see black bamboo ones as big as a thumb inscribed with Sandufu; the characters were as tiny as ants but without any damage done to the bamboo and without any abbreviation of strokes. Ah, this is truly an object of lovesickness.

In the 1820 collection of poetry, Collections of Smoke and Grass, Zhixi Jushi wrote a paean to the smoking instrument, “Song to the Opium Pipe.”

Hunanese bamboo and Yunnanese copper,
Skillful artisans turn it into artistic work,
One must be humble and calm to shape,
Straight forms into round gilded pipe.
Lying down on the mat and mists dawn,
Holding the beautiful as fragrance rises,
Wine and tea are old companions,
How wonderful they share the red light.

A tasteful, carefully assembled opium smoker’s layout.