History – a Cautious Introduction

There has been a lot written about opium smoking – for someone interested in collecting its artifacts, there are several thoughtful and well-illustrated books on paraphernalia and collecting that also cover the history of opium and opium-smoking. There are also books dedicated to the history of opium-smoking in particular, which offer even more historical detail – and analysis into the underlying social or cultural dynamics.

But contemporary books are one thing. When you start digging around in old historical sources, such as journals, articles, or other records from the era of widespread opium-smoking, it quickly becomes apparent that there are biases and distortions scattered practically everywhere someone recorded words or images on the topic. Sometimes, these twists are laughable – sometimes, they are ugly, even vile. The history of the history of opium is often a sorry mess.

Official Chinese anti-opium poster

Authors such as Zheng Yangwen or Keith McMahon point out many of the systemic biases found in historical sources, such as this aphorism about dynastic Chinese histories: “Written by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats.” Official court histories served a broader moralizing agenda, so their accounts take a stern and lecturing tone towards the subject of opium.

That particular bias of moralizing authorities wasn’t limited to imperial China, though. In the United States, for example, much of what was written about opium in the early 20th century was in a context where the “opium question” – whether or not opium should be outlawed, basically – was a frequent topic for exposition and debate. A lot of the testimony given before governmental bodies at the time came from religious missionaries to the East – people with very set ideas about the subject, and a very clear motivation to present opium-smoking (along with alcohol-drinking, and an endless assortment of other moral failings) in the most negative light. These views became axiomatic as the debate continued, and even well-evidenced arguments against them were rejected.

These motives shade not just written accounts, but visual ones as well – the blurring of correlation and causation between opium and poverty served the missionaries’ purposes, so the photographs they brought back highlight the poorest opium smokers in the worst conditions. Conveniently for the missionaries, those smokers also had the least autonomy in terms of keeping some strange person from a foreign land from entering their personal space and photographing them.

Another sort of bias is the treatment of an opium-smoker as some kind of xenomorph… alien, threatening, and insidious, crawling through the walls and the sewers, come to destroy purity and innocence. Sometimes this was done for entertainment… but more often, it was done for political purposes, drawing racist dividing lines those in power could exploit.

For example, consider the phenomenon in early 20th-century New York of “slumming”. White tourists would be treated to staged spectacles, including fake hatchet fights, such authentic Chinese cuisine as chop suey, and finally, a visit to an “opium den”, a campy scene where Chinese actors pretended to be high, and nobody actually smoked anything. The existence of entertainments like this beg the question: is some of what comes down to us as ‘history’ – as text, or photographs – in fact a memento of something else entirely?

Opium smoking generally does not involve popping out from behind furniture

For some, posing in a photographer’s studio with an opium pipe (and some costuming) provided a vicarious thrill.

Westerner posing as an opium smoker in a photographer’s studio

Staged entertainments were one thing, but the portrayal of the Chinese opium-smoker as a threatening outsider was worse when it came to politics. As opiumculture.com has pointed out, many Americans felt economically threatened by the arrival of Chinese immigrants, and politicians eagerly exploited that fear. This led to the passage of laws banning opium dens and opium-smoking – and the inclusion of opium-smoking in any disparaging article, caricature, or screed against Chinese people and culture in general. Painting Chinese as opium-besotted wastrels also served the purposes of other groups with social agendas, such as eugenicists.

Some newspaper and magazine accounts of opium smoking and opium dens seem to combine all these biases at once, creating shocking and lurid tales where a fallen, jaded “old Asia hand” (white) guides the reporter to a seedy opium den, in the poorest alley in town, where sinister caricatures (Chinese) prepare pipes for swooning, dissolute women (white) whose virtue is imperiled. Was the (white) reader swayed by sensational scenarios like this?

Drawing of an opium den from a magazine, 1883

These accounts are also, unsurprisingly, useless to the collector – even the details of the pipe’s proportions and process are wrong in the above example.

Aside from biases, there’s a good helping of pure falsehood to be found in historical sources. For example, someone writing against the outlawing of opium, with the supporting argument that opium withdrawal is “a fake complaint”, is clearly questionable. Similarly, arguments in favor of opium prohibition that claim opium kills 10% of the population per year are mathematically unlikely. The historical record is also scattered with outright perilous tidbits like this: “Opium, mixed in a ball with lead, makes a good stomach medicine!”

Statistics are another area where distortions occur, and one encounters dramatic claims that large percentages (20-30 or more) of China was addicted to the pipe. More critical modern examinations of what data we have estimate addiction rates closer to three percent, varying by about a percentage point between different eras, with a substantial proportion of those individuals leading normal lives.

So, after this introduction to a few of the biases that affect historical sources, a reader might ask, “Well then, what’s your angle?”

I collect old opium pipes and related articles – so this history section will concentrate on what comes with that territory. (And my focus is certainly on Chinese-style opium smoking – I’m aware there’s a complex history of opium in Persia, as well as a level of sophistication in vafoor-making that is not well-known, but finding sources on that branch of opium-smoking has been quite difficult.)

Opium pipes are multi-faceted relics – they reflect personal, social, and cultural histories. My concern isn’t the history of opium, but the history of opium smoking, the lives and the culture of those who originally made and used these pipes, and the context within which opium-smoking was practiced. I certainly do not know enough about Chinese culture to begin to speak authoritatively about many of its aspects – I am a curious beginner, and hope my inevitable mistakes don’t prove unforgivable.

Beyond that… things get a bit philosophical. I do hope to avoid some of the pitfalls I have identified in the historical sources I described earlier. I do not seek to treat the opium-smoker as other, as some kind of alien from another world, nor do I seek to treat opium use (or that of any other drug) as a flaw, a virtue, or anything else that morally separates its users from ordinary humanity.

Opium smoker preparing a pipe

If it seems callous to treat the delivery mechanism of an addictive narcotic as an object worthy of collection and appreciation, I want to be empathetic to the relics’ users in both pleasure and pain. Cauterizing any notion of pleasure out of our dialog about drug use has not helped us. Doing so seems a lot like trying to solve the quadratic equation when a is taboo, and only b and c may be assigned value. This strange approach to the topic has contributed to society dehumanizing drug use and drug users for more than a century. The redefinition of opium smoking in the 19th century was the starting point for this trend, which continued on from there to drugs like LSD and cannabis.

Instead, I believe that empathy, compassion, and respect for personal dignity and autonomy would have served us well back when deciding whether or not to outlaw opium… and are the only sane responses to the much grimmer scenes happening more and more today with heroin and other derivatives, scenes that I encounter in person on the streets of my city.

So, I hope to apply some empathy, compassion, and respect for the individual to this niche topic as well – neither scolding opium users’ joys nor ignoring their plights. And I hope I don’t come off as some kind of an expert about cultures foreign to me, and welcome feedback where I falter.

I’m just a somewhat novice pipe collector, not a historian, so take this all very lightly! Let’s just move on to the earliest days of opium use in the Ming court, with its murderous concubines and upward-managing alchemists…