Book review: Narcotic Culture: A history of Drugs in China

Drug culture and the Irish Famine. The connection? Well, while our ancestors were starving and their food was being shipped off to feed the British,

Frank Dikötter, Zhou Xun and Lars Laamann

University of Chicago Press, €25

the British were in China simultaneously fighting the Opium Wars (1840s and 1850s).

The British infuriated the Chinese with their longstanding illegal Indian opium trade. 

Chinese sovereignty was trampled and the opium mass-market proved a drain on imperialist silver holdings. The ever-successful British crushed the imperial army, imposed unequal treaties and continued trafficking. 

However, this sociological study suggests that it wasn’t Britain that created a Chinese drug problem, rather the Chinese prohibition movement itself.

Narcotics, a natural opoid of the Asian poppy, were used in imperial China for centuries. 

Eaten, its self-medicating values were cherished since the 8th century as a cure-all for all — pain; coughs; dysentery; diarrhoea. 

Prepared in complex religious and recreational rituals, opium was the social lubricant of choice.

The smoking habit Europeans brought from Quebec quickly spread to Asia. By the 18th century, a pipe-smoked opium/tobacco mix was widespread. (Later, China became the world’s largest cigarette market).

Ornate pipes appeared and, like the tea ceremony, opium smoking evolved into a culture of complex social rituals signifying elitism and social distinction. 

Opium houses were respected sites of sociability where small amounts of opium were shared with fruit and sweets — much like having peanuts with a pint. 

Studies proved that this natural product rarely undermined health or shortened lives.

In the 1870s, new-world medics, searching for legal and financial monopoly over pharmaceutical substances, fought to regulate ‘self-medication’. The model of ‘addiction’ appeared.

China, ‘a nation of hopeless addicts’, waged the first War on Drugs. The authors argue that ‘narcophobia’ was a scapegoat for social anxieties.

Criminalisation appeared in the late 1800s. 

During the Opium Oppression plan (1929) imprisonment and execution was rife. Smokers dependant on painkilling opium died in prison. 

Health clinics and detention centres caused disease, overrun with ordinary people needing ‘a cure’ with no distinction made between sick and healthy smokers. 

“Opium rarely killed, but prohibition could be fatal.” 

Morphine, the opium ingredient isolated in the early 19th century, was heralded as the ‘ultimate cure’. 

This replacement drug created addicts drawn from the poor who couldn’t afford opium, which became expensive following prohibition. 

Cheap morphine flooded the market, the British, a chief manufacturer, now profiting from ‘the cure’ as well! 

As the quest for miracle cures continued, cocaine and heroin (found in 1874 in London) arrived. Replacement therapies accelerated drug use in a variety of new applications. 

The Chinese, already accustomed to needle use in ancient acupuncture therapy, prized the syringe. The cure proved worse than the disease, dirty needles causing sepsis, syphilis and death. By the 1920s, bodies of drug users were routinely picked up from the streets.

Clandestine factories owned by local officials or gangsters produced dubious products. 

In 1916, smuggled quinine pills were found to have enough morphine to ‘kill a child’. 

Corruption and criminal gangs thrived under prohibition providing replacement therapies for the poor; the affluent still enjoyed opium.

Global trade history (ie, tobacco; tea) proves fascinating, but this scholarly book will appeal to those with a unique cross-interest in narcotics and history.


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