Early China: Flowers and Remedies
The history of opium as an intoxicant doesn’t start until partway through the Ming dynasty – but opium had been known in China for centuries by that time.
It was grown and used as a medicine since at least the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.) and such use continued through subsequent dynasties. Opium was a simple remedy to prepare for ailments like dysentery, sunstroke, asthma, coughs, and diarrhea. These medicinal uses were documented over the centuries by notable physicians and herbalists.
Appreciation for the pleasures of opium during this time wasn’t unknown – but it had nothing to do with the drug. Scholars of the Tang dynasty praised the beauty of the opium (known as yingsu or minang) flower, for example with poetry about nearing home after a long journey, delighted at recognizing the familiar minang flowers coming into view.
Opium pod and flower themes are of course a natural choice for the decoration and embellishment of opium paraphernalia, but it is still interesting to see how the themes from opium objects from the 1900’s echoes feelings expressed a thousand years earlier.
Treasure Fleets and the Black Fragrance
Popular fantasy novels often portray eunuchs as quiet, shadowy schemers. Zheng He was anything but. Castrated at the age of 10 after mouthing off to an invading general, he rose to prominence in the Ming court by backing the Yongle Emperor during his 3-year civil war for the imperial throne. Zheng went on to become an admiral and diplomat who commanded imperial expeditions from 1405 to 1433, projecting Chinese power and influence as far abroad as East Africa – and defeating the most feared pirate of the Straits of Malacca along the way.
The fleets and ships Zheng commanded were massive; the first expedition left with 63 treasure ships and 255 smaller vessels, with a total complement of more than 27,000 crew members. The expeditions followed established trade routes between China and the Arabian Peninsula, focused less on exploration than on expanding China’s influence and strengthening commerce. The ties and patterns established by these seafaring tribute missions set the stage for the later introduction of New World produce such as peanuts and tobacco, and the ongoing flow of tribute into the imperial court.
Chinese treasure ships left Nanjing with gold, silver, ceramics, and silk, and returned with a dizzying assortment of foreign goods and treasures. Various expeditions brought back ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoiseshell, cloves, pepper, aucklandia root, parrots, peacocks, orioles, ostriches, zebras, camels, a giraffe, horses, saddles, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, precious stones…
…and opium, called wu xiang, or ‘black fragrance’.
Fragrances were a special commodity to the imperial court. Many of the plants and herbs brought as tribute were called fragrances – for example, sandalwood was called tan xiang. They were an imperial monopoly, luxurious and rarefied, and their uses ranged from rituals to cosmetics to aphrodisiacs. It’s not entirely clear whether Ming court scholars initially realized wu xiang was in fact the extract of the minang flower used medically for centuries, but the elevation of this foreign, refined opium reflects its associations with femininity and luxury. And it’s unsurprising that opium’s aroma would be celebrated; as Jean Cocteau would write centuries later, “Opium is the least stupid smell in the world.”
Wu xiang flowed into the imperial court. With xiang being an imperial monopoly, one can imagine a great deal of the highest-quality tribute opium piling up in the imperial stores. It shouldn’t be surprising that it found interesting uses…
The Chenghua Emperor and Lady Wan
The story of the Chenghua Emperor (reign 1464-1487) and the imperial concubine Lady Wan is scandalous and bloodcurdling. Lady Wan had begun her career as Chenghua’s nursemaid, and became his senior consort when he took the throne… but their son died within a year, leaving the line of succession empty. Chenghua bemoaned his seeming inability to produce another heir, and court officials listened.
Herbalists and alchemists promising ‘golden panaceas’ and ‘secret sex formulas’ soon found their stock rising at court, and in 1483, eunuchs were sent to Hainan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Sichuan and Shaanxi to procure opium – at a price equal to that of gold. (Clearly, by now, the connection between wu xiang and the minang flower was known to those researching opium.)
What were these secret formulas being concocted by alchemists and taken by royalty? Gao Lian’s Eight Discourses on the Art of Living provides one early example: ‘Bezoar, pearl, borneol, musk, rhinoceros horn, Calculus canis, antelope’s horn, catechu, Sanguia draconis, cinnabar, opium, amber, Corallium japonicum, eagle wood, aucklandia root, and white sandalwood. Pound into powder, add human milk to make into pellets big as Euryale ferox seeds, use gold powder to coat, take one at a time, use pear juice to swallow’.
(It’s probably best for all involved that such recipes, over time, tended to just focus on opium. Thankfully Gao Lian didn’t raid the imperial tribute stockpiles looking for a giraffe…)
Did swallowing experimental concoctions of rare animal parts, mercury ore, and opium have any effect? In fact, Chenghua did sire several heirs. It turns out the real problem wasn’t his lack of male essence – or overdoing it on the golden panacea. Lady Wan, the first concubine, was forcing abortions on or even murdering other consorts who got pregnant. The future emperor, Hongzhi, only survived by being secreted away by his mother, Lady Ji, and raised outside the palace.
While Chenghua did manage to sire an heir, he was generally regarded as an ineffective, gullible ruler. Investigating Censor Xie Binzhong wrote succinctly of Chenghua’s reign: “The door of the sycophant was wide open. Eunuchs and corrupt officials obtained appointments with unusual prescriptions, exotic practices, or pornographic instruments, paintings and calligraphy.”
Once Hongzhi took power, he began cleaning house. He sent many of his father’s alchemists and charlatans packing, but by then, the knowledge of opium could not be erased. It had become a part of ‘the art of the bedchamber’, and court officials and eunuchs had recognized its allure.
The associations between opium and ideas of luxury, wealth, rejuvenation, beauty, and romance were set during the early Ming dynasty – themes found reflected in the details of opium paraphernalia throughout its history.
The Wanli Emperor’s Bones
The arrival of wu xiang in imperial tributes did not stop after Chenghua – far from it. In just one trade mission in 1584, the King of Siam sent as tribute 150 kilograms of opium – and China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia were so eager to trade that eventually the Ming dynasty had to forbid Java, Champa, and Siam from sending a trade envoy more than once every three years.
The reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572-1620) is widely regarded as a disaster. There was a great deal of tension between Wanli and court officials over his desire to bypass the rules of primogeniture and name his third son, Zhu Changxun, as Crown Prince. In 1589, he stopped appearing at general audiences or communicating with his ministers – and his strange absence continued for 25 years. Internal problems mounted in the absence of effective government, and the military went into decline even as Manchuria grew in strength. (The Manchu would go on to rule China, with the Qing dynasty ascending 16 years after Wanli’s death.) Wanli was so historically disdained that his tomb was desecrated in 1966, and his remains, along with his empresses’, were burned and photographed.
The emperor suffered from many mysterious illnesses, starting from the age of 14 – a year after that 150 kilogram tribute of opium arrived from Siam. His complaints included sunstroke, weakness, dizziness, diarrhea, and anxiety, leading him to seek seclusion. Wanli was also known for taking chunyao, or ‘spring medicine’ – the broad term for the secretive sex formulas from Chenghua’s day, possibly containing opium. Historians have long speculated about the content of Wanli’s chunyao and its role in his absenteeism. Lei Jin wrote about it during the late Qing-early Republic era in Gossips from the City of Opium: “He did not summon his ministers because of this thing!”
Historical curiosity about the contents of chunyao and whether it contained opium persisted. In 1997, China’s Ministry of Public Security published Historical Lessons of Prohibition, revealing that the events of 1966 weren’t the first time Wanli’s remains were disinterred. In 1958, the government took the extraordinary step of having Wanli’s bones tested for morphine, and found evidence of heavy and habitual opium use. However, during the investigation, they also found that he may have had a congenital disability, his bones suggesting his upper body was bent.
Whether Wanli’s problems were caused by his opium addiction, or his addiction was the result of seeking relief from the the suffering of serious health challenges, is hard to judge. Quite possibly it was a vicious cycle – similar to the difficult path many have found themselves on today, with the opioid crisis in the United States leading people from pain prescriptions to heroin addictions.
Did Wanli’s insistence on Zhu Changxun as heir came from his concern over the health of his progeny? Zhu Changluo, the heir that was eventually selected against Wanli’s wishes, fell ill and died only a month into his reign. (Though the ‘red pills’ he took to try to address his symptoms were viewed with some suspicion, leading to the exile of the prescribing apothecary.)
Either way, Zhu’s death plunged the court into chaos, and the end of the Ming and the rise of the Qing Dynasty were in sight.
The Arrival of Tobacco
Following its introduction to European explorers in 1492, tobacco was carried east from the New World along the same maritime routes used by the treasure fleets of Zheng He. Popular with Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish sailors, and requiring instruction in the particularities of its use, its initial spread likely took place in dockside taverns and markets. Other New World produce – maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes – followed the same routes.
Chinese scholars in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties estimated that tobacco first entered China during the reign of Wanli (1572-1620). Archaeological evidence shows a slightly earlier date, with stamps on pipes found in Guangxi province dating to 1550.
Tobacco first grew in popularity in coastal provinces such as Fujian. By around 1620-1630, the use of tobacco had become commonplace in parts of China. In the village of Qin, outside of Shanghai, soldiers, officials, and four out of five of the common folk smoked. Cultivation was spreading as well, again starting with Fujian.
The Manchu, far to the north, were already familiar with smoking before their Qing dynasty took the throne, tobacco having made its way up the Yellow Sea route. Prohibitions against tobacco were issued, but as they would be with opium, they were spotty and ineffective, despite being harsh. The emperor of Manchuria issued a death sentence on those selling it in 1632, for example, but the cultivation, sale, and use of tobacco was naturalized and widespread anyways by the time the Qing conquered Beijing in 1644. As with many prohibition efforts throughout history, the only real effect was that profits on tobacco had doubled.
The First Opium Smoke
With tobacco and opium moving along the same trade routes, it was inevitable that someone would try applying the new technology of tobacco – pipe smoking – to the black fragrance. A mixture of opium, hemp, and other local plants was boiled and mixed with tobacco. The result, which would come to be called madak, was observed by authors in Bantan (present-day Java) in 1602 and in Macao in 1626. Its spread continued, with Dutch traders carrying it to Taiwan.
Opium-smoking was not noted by authorities during the Ming dynasty, though, so we will pick up madak’s trail next time with the development of the madak pipe and the first opium den in Taiwan.
The Gardeners of Jiangnan
Jiangnan is a region in China that encompasses lands south of the lower reach of the Yangtze river – including cities like Shanghai and Nanjing. The area was fertile and prosperous, a center of economic activity since the 2nd century C.E., and the political base for several dynasties. By the end of the Ming dynasty, Jiangnan was home to many highly educated and cultured gentlemen of repute, and the cultivation and investigation of opium was becoming chic.
The minang flower was widespread, with many families growing it in their gardens for its beauty in the mid 1500s. The convenience of having a lovely flower that could also cure diarrhea and cough gave the plant additional apeal. The knowledge of how to refine the flower into opium paste was also widespread enough that it could be bought in marketplaces.
As Zheng Wangwen observes in The Social Life of Opium in China, opium moved from the imperial court outwards, to the lettered and learned class, then moving on to the middle class and finally to everyone, going through political redefinition along the way. Opium’s spread to the gardens of respected scholars and officials in Jiangnan was part of that first expansion of opium’s availability and its redefinition, which would continue in the next dynasty.
We will return to the Jiangnan region again throughout opium-smoking’s rise, past heights of poetry, sophistication, banditry, exploitation, and decadence, into the wild twilight of Shanghai in the 1930’s… and the brutal darkness that followed.