Anatomy of an opium pipe

A typical opium pipe in the southern Chinese style, fully assembled, looks generally something like this illustration:

Typical southern style pipe, assembled

The pipe shaft and the pipe bowl are easily disconnected, by design. This makes it possible to clean out the bowl, and for different bowls to be easily swapped out. When collecting, quite often pipes and bowls are found separately. Bowls and pipes that are a matched pair do exist, but are atypical, and usually high-end.

Typical southern style pipe and bowl

Not shown in this illustration is the ghee-rag, a small strip or circle of cloth, which helps makes a perfect seal between the bowl and the pipe shaft. (And helps keep the bowl safely emplaced if one wants to display their collection piece assembled.) These are usually in tatters, if you find one at all. They weren’t ever valuable to begin with, just pieces of whatever scrap cloth was handy and worked well.

Since collecting antiques sometimes entails finding incomplete or partial pipes, or even repairing damaged items, here’s a breakdown of all the individual pieces you might find on an ordinary opium pipe:

A: Bowl, B: Collar, C: Saddle, D: Stem, D1: Node, E: Mouthpiece, E1: Ring, F: Endcap, F1: Ring

The main body of the pipe stem is around 40 to 60 cm long, around 2 cm in diameter, and typically made of bamboo, but can be other materials, including bone, ivory, tortoiseshell, other woods, or various metals. In some cases, there is an exotic outer shell, such as niello or cloisonné, around a bamboo core, since bamboo was much better in terms of its smoking qualities than less porous materials. Sometimes a bamboo or wood pipe is lacquered black, red, or other colors, but is often left plain, for its natural coloring to show.

The node, also called the hoodoo or the branch, is often present on bamboo pipes. It’s the natural point where growing bamboo forms branches, and a fine specimen with prominent branches would be treasured. Sometimes the branches are capped with metal bands, or the node carved into the shape of an animal, or the node is removed entirely. The node is an important enough feature in the aesthetics of an opium pipe that pipes of a material without natural nodes (such as ivory) sometimes have something special carved at that position anyways.

The saddle is where a bowl is fitted to a pipe stem, and so needs to be strong enough to stand up to day-to-day insertion and removal of bowls. Saddles are almost always made of metal, such as brass, silver, paktong, or other layered or interleaved arrangements of several metals, and sometimes adorned further with jewels or engraving. The saddle also needs to provide enough surface area to be well-glued onto a pipe shaft; saddles and pipes are not intended to be interchangeable the way pipes and bowls are. Sometimes you can see on an old, worn pipe the outline of a pipe’s earlier saddle that has been replaced.

The mouthpiece, endcap, and decorative rings that sometimes accompany them aren’t always present. Some pipes are shaped and polished at the end of the bamboo or whatever material they are made of; other pipes don’t have a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece and endcap are usually present, though, and are made of materials such as ivory, jade, or buffalo horn. The mouthpiece always has a hole through its center (obviously) but sometimes the endcap will have a hole as well – the endcap doesn’t necessarily seal a pipe to make its far end airtight, since the bamboo used in such pipes naturally grows an internal wall just ahead of the node. On some pipes, the endcap is removable to form a little storage area in that space, but there isn’t enough room there in a normal-sized pipe to store even small pipe tools, so this might be more of a novelty.

Decorative rings are optional, and range from simple bands of brass to rings of finely enameled decoration. These are generally on nicer pipes.

The bowl is hollow, about the size of a doorknob, and has a small opening at the top called an eye where the drug is placed when a pipe is used. Frequently bowls are called ‘dampers’ when you find them discussed or for sale. The hollowness of a bowl is a requirement for smoking and cleaning, and as a result can be used to suss out fakes. If a bowl is unusually heavy, take a peek inside. If it’s mostly solid, it’s likely a souvenir for tourists.

Pipe bowl. Left to right: side view with collar, top view, bottom view, and cutaway view.

Bowls are generally made of clay or stoneware, but other types such as jade or painted porcelain are common as well. All the outer surfaces (except, generally, the eye) of a pipe bowl are fair game for decoration, with glazes, stamped and carved detail, and more. Some bowls are sculpted into the forms of animals such as crabs and frogs; others have metal rings or filigree encircling the rim.

Markings, stamped into the clay as imprints are very common, especially around the bottom of the bowl. Often these indicate what artisan or workshop produced them, dates of manufacture, sayings or proverbs, or more.

The collar is typically brass or a brassy metal with little decoration, though finer examples exist. The collar is usually glued tight to the bowl, and like the saddle of a pipe, isn’t meant to be casually swapped out in the course of normal use. On some, there is a collar made of a slip of bamboo, which forms an airtight seal with the saddle without the need for a ghee-rag. On some pipes, there is no separate collar; instead, a collar formed from the same clay as the rest of the bowl extends downwards from the bottom:

Pipe bowl with integrated collar

On many pipes, there is a small metal, ceramic, or mother-of-pearl insert that forms the eye. This is either by design, or the result of a repair to replace a worn-out eye on a much cherished bowl.

Bowl with metal insert forming the eye


The northern-style opium pipe, fully assembled, doesn’t have a saddle or a length of bamboo extending past the bowl – instead, it has a mount at the end:

Typical northern Chinese style pipe, assembled

This mount, usually of ivory or jade, is very often carved into the shape of a fist, giving it the appearance of clenching onto the bowl. This motif is common enough that the mount is often referred to as the fist, whatever its shape. (Other motifs include faces or plain geometric shapes.) These pipes use the same type of bowl (with its collar) as the southern-style pipes – bowls can be freely interchanged between northern and southern varieties of pipe.

Northern-style pipe and bowl

The fist can be carved from a single piece of material, or it can be outfitted with additional metal fittings.

Northern-style pipe, disassembled

If a fist has metal fittings, they are sometimes detachable, and meet inside the fist like an elbow joint cut in half at a 45-degree angle:

Northern-style pipe fist, showing metal inserts


Finally, among various East Asian opium pipes, there is a simpler form, which is sometimes referred to as ‘hill tribe’ style. Similar in design to the Persian vafoor, these pipes have a bamboo shaft, sometimes with a mouthpiece, to which a different kind of bowl is directly attached at the end. This bowl is similar to the bowls above, hollow and usually of clay, but is differently shaped in order to attach to the end of the bamboo:

Simple opium pipe, assembled (top) and with the bowl detached (bottom)