The Art of Smoking Chandu

“Cooking” chandu over an opium lamp.

Smoking opium in the Chinese manner required a special type of the drug known as chandu. While chandu was often prepared by the proprietors of opium dens, it was also manufactured on an industrial scale as the practice grew in popularity during the nineteenth century. Workers in large chandu factories prepared the drug by repeatedly boiling and filtering it, and smokers could choose from several “brands,” according to their taste and financial means.

In “Opium Culture,” Peter Lee details not only the preparation but also the consumption of chandu. Chandu could be either solid, semi-solid, or liquid, depending on the smoker’s preference. If liquid chandu was being smoked, it was first cooked in a tiny wok over the lamp’s flame before being rolled against the top of the damper and inserted into its hole. Particularly skilled smokers could inhale the entire “pill” of chandu in one draw. Because dross accumulated inside of the damper, it was necessary to have multiple ones at the ready. Opium smoking could get quite messy, and it was necessary to have a small receptacle for bits of dross and used gee rags, as well as bits of the lamp’s wick. The opium smoker’s layout typically included a small pair of scissors, a trash receptacle, a tool for scraping bits of chandu off of the needles, and perhaps a small scoop and long pipe cleaner.

Rolling a pill of chandu against an opium pipe’s damper.

The act of smoking chandu in the Chinese style was highly ritualized and rife with Taoist symbolism. It inspired countless verses of poetry, such as the following, which were often inscribed on pipe bowls:

Swallowing Clouds, Spewing Fog

Always the Right Time

Fragrant Fumes of the Immortals

To Celebrate and Auspicious Day

Spring Flowers and Autumn Moon

The Fragrance Wafts for a Thousand Miles