Unravelling the myth of China’s 'Opium Plague'

The image of China as an opium slave was the starting point for an international ‘war on drugs’ which, over a century later, is still being fought today.

Frank Dikötter
18 May 2016

Opium smokers, China, c.1880. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.Last month, the United Nations General Assembly held a Special Session to review its current drug control system. But few people realise that the system actually has its origins in China, over a century ago. In 1909, an international conference proposing to prohibit opium and its derivatives was convened in Shanghai. Three years later, the first drug control treaty was signed at the International Opium Convention of the Hague. It was the cornerstone of a global ‘war on drugs’ which is still unfolding today.

At the time of the 1912 Convention, China was widely understood to be fighting a huge addiction problem, caused by an obnoxious trade in opium started by Britain during the 'Opium Wars' in the middle of the nineteenth century. China was seen as 'Patient Zero', an ancient civilisation in the grip of a drug plague that threatened to contaminate the rest of the world. China became the founding case for concerted international efforts to enforce increasingly draconian measures not only against opium, but against all illicit drug use in America, Europe and Asia.

To this day, China remains the single most important example in history of a culture commonly claimed to have been 'destroyed' by an intoxicant other than alcohol. I would like to question this image, which underpins much of the legitimacy of today's ‘war on drugs’.

The first step in dismantling the opium myth is to underline the lack of any medical evidence about the impact of the substance on the health of consumers – bar mild constipation. In nineteenth-century England, where opium was chewed and eaten in tiny portions or dissolved in tinctures by people of all social backgrounds, frequent and chronic users did not suffer any detrimental effects: many enjoyed good health well into their eighties. In south Asia, opium pills were commonly taken without creating serious social or physical damage, in contrast to the strong spirits imported from abroad in the face of opposition from both the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Opium is portrayed in narco-phobic discourse as a drug which produces an irresistible compulsion to increase both the amount and frequency of dosage, although the historical evidence shows that very few users were 'compulsive addicts' who 'lost control' or suffered from a 'failure of will'. Consumers want reliable, not infinite supplies. Like nicotine, opium is a psychotropic which is generally taken in determined amounts rather than ever-increasing ones. Opium smokers in China could moderate their use for personal and social reasons and even cease taking it altogether without help. In the late 1930s, when opium prices soared in Canton, most smokers halved the amount they used to make ends meet: few would rigidly hold on to their usual dose.

Another element of the opium myth is the refusal to accept that most of its consumption in Europe, the Middle East and Asia was rarely problematic. The existence of a class of occasional, intermittent, light and moderate users was one of the most controversial issues in the opium debate in the late nineteenth century. Yet there is abundant evidence that many users only resorted to the paste on special occasions. To take an example from nineteenth-century China, the official He Yongqing exclusively smoked opium to treat diarrhoea, while countless others smoked no more than a dozen grams a year strictly for medical purposes. Many were intermittent smokers, drifting in and out of narcotic culture according to their personal and social requirements. Many people would smoke a pipe or two at popular festivals and religious ceremonies several times a year without ever becoming regular users.

Another problem is the demonisation of 'opium' into a single and uniform substance. The paste varied immensely in strength and quality, while many consumers in China were connoisseurs who could distinguish between a large variety of products, ranging from expensive red Persian opium to qualitatively poor local produce. Opium is an extremely complex compound containing sugars, gums, acids and proteins as well as dozens of alkaloids which varied in proportion and content. General statements about the purported effects of 'opium' are thus as vague as blanket condemnations of 'alcohol': a world of difference existed between weak home-brewed beers in medieval Europe and strong spirits in Victorian England.

Most of the imported paste from India and the locally cultivated opium in China had a very low morphine content, on average 3 or 4%. On the other hand, the opium imported every year into nineteenth-century England from Turkey in thousands of tonnes was very rich in morphine, ranging from 10 to 15%. Furthermore, smoking was generally acknowledged to be more wasteful than ingestion, although the morphine content reached the bloodstream more quickly and caused a rush: 80 to 90% of the active compound was lost from fumes which either escaped from the pipe or were exhaled by the smoker.

Researchers working on 'drugs' have often focused exclusively on issues related to production and distribution, replicating the conventional wisdom that supply determines demand. But when we look more closely at consumption in the case of opium, it becomes quite clear that smokers in China were not so much 'addicts' in the grip of an 'addiction' but users who made their own choices for a whole variety of different reasons. Expensive opium imported from India was initially an object of connoisseurship for wealthy scholars and rich merchants, who carefully prepared the substance in intricate and complex rituals. But as the poppy was increasingly cultivated in China and smoking progressed down the social scale during the second half of the nineteenth century, it became a popular marker of male sociability.

Even among the less privileged, the example of the 'lonely smoker' was eschewed: smoking was a collective experience, an occasion for social intercourse, a highly ritualised event which set strict parameters for the consumption of opium. In a culture of restraint, opium was an ideal social lubricant which could be helpful in maintaining decorum and composure, in contrast to alcohol which was believed to lead to socially disruptive modes of behaviour.

But most of all opium was a medical panacea.

But most of all opium was a medical panacea. The main reason for smoking opium in China was to reduce pain, fight fever, stop diarrhoea and suppress a cough. The lowering of the cost of opium in the nineteenth century allowed ordinary people to relieve the symptoms of endemic diseases such as dysentery, cholera and malaria and to cope with fatigue, hunger and cold. Nothing was more effective than opium in treating pain. Even with the gradual spread of more modern medical facilities in the first half of the twentieth century, opium often remained the cornerstone of self-medication in the absence of effective and affordable alternatives. There are millions of individuals who suffer from chronic and debilitating pain in Europe today, never mind China a century ago, and they are rarely offered adequate treatment, as medical science has yet to discover a drug capable of matching the analgesic qualities of opium.

If opium was medicine as much as recreation, there is abundant evidence that the transition from a tolerated opium culture to a system of prohibition in China from 1906 onwards produced a cure which was far worse than the disease. Tens of thousands of ordinary people were imprisoned and died from epidemics in crowded cells, while those deemed beyond hope of redemption were simply executed. Opium smokers also died in detoxification centres, either because the medical authorities failed effectively to treat the ailments for which opium was taken in the first place or because replacement treatments were poorly conceived and badly administered.

Plenty of archival evidence exists to illustrate how opium smokers died within the first few days of treatment. In 1946, to take but one example, 73-year-old Luo Bangshi, who had relied on opium to control severe gastro-intestinal problems, was ordered by the local court in Jiangsu province to follow detoxification treatment. He died in hospital on the second day of his replacement therapy.

Official attempts to police the bloodstream of the nation engendered corruption, a black market and a criminal underclass. They also accelerated the spread of morphine and heroin. Both were widely smoked in the first decades of the twentieth century, although some of the heroin pills taken for recreational purposes contained only a very small amount of alkaloids and were often based on lactose or caffeine. Morphine and heroin had few concrete drawbacks, and a number of practical advantages which persuaded many opium smokers to switch under prohibition: pills were convenient to transport, relatively cheap, odourless and thus almost undetectable in police searches, and easy to use since they no longer required the complicated paraphernalia and time-consuming rituals of opium smoking.

Where opium was suppressed the use of heroin went up. The National Anti-Opium Association of China noted in 1929: “We are quite taken by surprise by the fact that inversely as the evil practice of opium smoking is on the decrease through the united effort of the people, the extent of illicit trade in, and use of, narcotic drugs, such as morphine, heroin and cocaine, is ever on the increase.” As one government official noted in 1935, “by enforcing drastic measures against the use of opium the Chinese government would run the risk of increasing the number of drug addicts”.

Some of the morphine and heroin sold on the black market hardly contained any alkaloids, but the needles shared by the poor were rarely sterilised. They transmitted a range of infectious diseases and caused lethal septicemia. Wu Liande, a medical expert based in Harbin in the 1910s, observed how thousands of morphine victims died every year of blood poisoning resulting from dirty needles.

Ironically, the only region where the syringe failed to displace the pipe was the British crown colony of Hong Kong. As a result of colonial commitment to a government monopoly over the sale and distribution of opium from 1914 to 1943, the paste remained more cost-effective and convenient than heroin on the black market. After the colonial authorities were no longer in a position to withstand American opposition to the opium trade and were obliged to eliminate their state monopoly, many opium smokers switched to injecting heroin within less than ten years.

Even without prohibition, opium consumption would probably have eroded over time. Antibiotics appeared in the 1940s and were used to treat a whole range of diseases which had previously been managed with opiates: penicillin took over the medical functions of opium. On the other hand, the social status of opium was already on the decline in the 1930s, abstinence being seen as a mark of pride among social elites. Jean Cocteau put it succinctly: “Young Asia no longer smokes because "grandfathers smoked".”

The image of China as an opium slave was the starting point for an international ‘war on drugs’ which is still being fought today. But official attitudes towards psychoactive substances have all too often been based on narcophobic propaganda which disregards the complex choices made by human beings and instead portrays 'drugs' as an intrinsic evil leading to certain death. Prohibition fuels crime, fills prisons, feeds corruption, endangers public health, restricts the effective management of chronic pain and produces social exclusion. The best way to win the 'war on drugs' may well be to stop fighting it.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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