Although the erotic culture surrounding opium’s use did not reach its zenith until after the method of smoking it had become thoroughly entrenched in Chinese culture, its use as an aphrodisiac extends back much further. Opium had already been used medicinally in China for hundreds of years, but during the middle of the Ming dynasty, opium began its transformation into an indispensable part of China’s erotic culture, and the “spring drug” was frequently taken in the form of powder, pellets, or syrup, and it was even mixed with food and drink. By the seventeenth century, opium was widely used as an aide to sexual prowess, as the following excerpt from a treatise by the eighteenth-century physician Huang Yaunyu indicates:
The opium smoke helps arrest secretion and control emission… In the central plains, rascals and spoiled rats, officials and their attendants, actors and courtesans, they all think that it replenishes them, strengthens their spirit, helps them sleep with women and beautiful boys, and that its effect is ten times out of the ordinary.
The following excerpt from Xu Banqiao Zaji paints a vivid picture of the huafang, or flower boats, where opium was smoked in the company of beautiful women:
The river-boats of the Qinhuai River are covered with awning above and surrounded by railings below. Lanterns hang at the corners; low beds are set in the middle… everything is exquisite. There is no curtain on either side so that it is easy to look out. When the boat sets out at sunset, the two oars move in unison. Wind of lotus assails the nostrils and the fragrance of snow-white lotus root stirs the heart. Songs charm the ear and ravishing women surround you. This is really a dream celestial world.
Of course, opium smoking was also a common activity in conventional brothels. According to Peter Lee, opium smokers were considered superior lovers because the drug prolonged the act of sex and made the man more receptive to his partner’s needs. He notes that often, smokers would request a long, leisurely massage from a girl rather than demanding sex. In such establishments, girls were not only skilled in the sexual arts, but in preparing the pipe as well. Many of them became habitual opium smokers themselves.
In the West, opium’s sexual connotation both enticed and repulsed whites. In France, where attitudes toward the drug were a bit more positive, postcards featuring European women smoking opium in the nude were very popular, while in the US, the fear of Chinese men seducing white women with their opium pipes fanned the flames of xenophobia. A bit of this connotation lives on even today, and the taboo allure of the opium den continues to titillate the Western imagination.