Materials

Hunanese bamboo and Yunnanese copper,
Skillful artisans turn it into artistic work,
One must be humble and calm to shape
Straight forms into round gilded pipes.
Lying down on the mat, and mists dawn,
Holding the beautiful as fragrance rises…

-Zhixi Jushi

The materials chosen in the creation of opium pipes and accessories served both aesthetic and functional goals. At the height of the late Qing era, when opium-smoking was practiced across all financial and class lines, the paraphernalia ranged from simple and cheap to ornate and costly – but functional quality was critical to all. As a result, certain materials like bamboo and Yixing clay were universal, serving the laborer and the scholar alike. Other materials like precious metals and gems were found on more expensive items, usually accompanied by much more meticulous detailing.

Bamboo

Bamboo, by Xu Wei, Ming Dynasty.

Bamboo is iconic in East Asia. The scenic beauty of bamboo forests is frequently celebrated in Chinese art, just as the strength of bamboo is put to use in structures, bridges, scaffolding, furniture, and more in day-to-day life. It’s one of the materials that is used in both the most affordable and the most high-end pipes… no other material was so widely available and made such good opium pipe stems.

In any smoking pipe, a certain length of stem is needed to cool down the fumes as they are drawn from the hot bowl to the smoker’s mouth. The quality – the strength and the taste – of the smoke is important as well, though, so choosing the material for a pipe stem is not simply a matter of finding whatever cools most effectively.

The interior walls of a bamboo tube absorb vapor as the pipe is used, and once a pipe is broken in, the opium-seasoned interior then serves to cool the smoke without reducing any of its effects or taste. A well-seasoned bamboo pipe was highly valued by smokers – second only to sugar cane in terms of smoking quality, but far more durable. Perfectly seasoned pipes were handed down from father to son in the Qing era. When new, bamboo stems were often coated on the outside with opium or tea in order to provide a darker finish, as well as being lined on the inside with opium to speed the break-in process.

An assortment of unusual Chinese bamboos

The place of origin for materials was an important factor to Chinese buyers of crafted items, and opium pipes were no exception. The most celebrated bamboo came from Hunan in the far south of China, and in Chinese descriptions of opium smoking you can often find “the Hunanese mottled bamboo pipe” instead of just ‘the pipe’ or ‘the bamboo pipe’.

There are a wide variety of bamboo species, and various sources identify some of those most used in opium pipes. These sources use different sorts of terminology, so this list is a bit of a work in progress:

  • Bambusa malingensis, called “seabreeze” bamboo in the West, grown in southern China, the most prevalent species for opium pipes
  • “Ngaichau”, or “Ngai-chiu chuk” bamboo, from the interior of Hainan island, durable, doesn’t crack with climate change, possibly Schizostachyum hainanense, fine tactile quality
  • Chimonobambusa quadrangularis, or square bamboo
  • Xiangfei zhu (湘妃竹) or Hunanese mottled bamboo, also called “Ban chu”, spotted bamboo
  • Phyllostachys bambusoides, also known as teardrop bamboo
  • Phyllostachys bambusoides forma. lacrima-deae, also known as mottled bamboo, or “tear of a goddess” bamboo, may be the same as Xiangfei zhu
  • Bambusa ventricosa, “Hulu” bamboo (double-gourd or Buddha-belly bamboo)

Sugar cane, medicinal woods, and other plant materials for pipe stems

Sugar cane takes the desirable smoking qualities of bamboo and amplifies them – pipe stems from sugar cane break in very quickly, and provide an even better smoke than bamboo, with the plant’s naturally abundant sugars contributing sweetness to the taste. It doesn’t have the strength of bamboo, though, and breaks down very quickly. A saturated sugar cane pipe that had reached the end of its usable life was often broken up into small pieces which were swallowed as a medicine for dysentery.

Other plants used for stems include:

  • Dried lemon or bitter orange peel, applied in layers (sometimes around a bamboo core) and sanded smooth, with fragrant and medicinal properties
  • Ironwood
  • Eaglewood, valued for an especially mild smoke (also sometimes used as a scent in the manufacture of fine opium)
  • Ebony (though some called it a terrible material for stems)
  • Citrus woods, with pleasant smoking qualities
  • Bramble, with an interesting tactile surface
  • Ordinary wood was considered poor, and wood for mouthpieces was an aesthetic faux pas, as wood near the face suggested a coffin

Tortoise shell and shagreen

Top: a tortoise shell pipe, bottom: a shagreen pipe

Tortoise shell is a substance with a very long history in China. Pieces of shell more than 8,500 years old have been found with writing on them – the earliest evidence of written language anywhere, predating Mesopotamian examples by thousands of years. Later the practice of plastromancy arose, which was a form of divination carried out by inscribing turtle plastrons with a form of writing called oracle bone script and then putting them into a hot fire. The resulting cracks relative to the script were interpreted by pyromancers seeking answers about the future.

Shagreen is a rough, pebbly leather made from shark or ray skin. Its use has been dated as early as the 2nd century CE, and in the Qing era it was used on compound bows, various containers, book covers, and more. Its subtle green color and tactile feel have an air of restrained luxury, and shagreen items, particularly archery-related items like quivers, can command startling prices today.

Pipes made from these materials were considered quite luxurious, and typically had bamboo cores to provide a better quality of smoke, and in the case of shagreen, the necessary structural strength for a pipe. These materials are rarely used on other parts of opium items, though rare examples exist, such as a bamboo pipe with a tortoise shell saddle.

Ivory

Ivory carving has been part of Chinese art for thousands of years. Examples of fine carving have been found in tombs from the Shang dynasty, before 1000 BCE, and those pieces showed a level of craft that suggests ivory carving was a well-established craft even then.

It source is the tusk of the elephant, possessing a subtly beautiful luster and a hardness that lets it be intricately carved. In the times of the early Chinese ivory carvers, elephants roamed the Huang He region, and ivory was abundant. By the Song dynasty (960 CE) elephants had been driven far into the southwest of China, and are found today only in a few places in the southernmost part of Yunnan. Many ivory antiques in China came from Africa, with Hong Kong being a center for importing and crafting. Ivory has remained highly desirable even through modern times, and that demand created tragedy, with elephant populations facing extinction. An international ban on the ivory trade, followed by a ban on the sale of ivory within China in late 2017, have been welcomed by conservationists.

Shipping ivory antiques over national borders presents a lot of challenges, requiring proof of the item’s age, and in many cases may be entirely impossible. And purchasing any ivory that isn’t clearly very old presents the specter of erasing the elephant from the wild – no excuse can be made. If one needs to replace an ivory part today, as a collector, there’s fossil mammoth ivory, or elforyn, a synthetic alternative.

Pipe stems of ivory were luxury items – beautiful looking, with good smoking qualities as well. They were often carved, with examples ranging from restrained to highly wrought. The spot where a node would be on a bamboo pipe was a favorite spot for carvers to add a little raised detail, with sculpted animals, leaves, and more. On other stems, such as bamboo, ivory was a favored material for the pipe’s end pieces, valued for how it felt on the lips and for how it would color over time to a rich, amber patina.

It was also used in fine opium containers, on the handles of upscale accessories, and in rare cases on other parts of the opium layout, such as lamp bases.

Items from walrus ivory and mammoth ivory are rare but there are a few examples out there.

Bone, horn and antler

Ox bone, ox horn, and deer antler show up in some examples of opium antiques. While ox bone was used for some pipe stems, there are many fake/souvenir pipes made from plastic, shaped and colored to imitate bone. Bone stems were often inscribed with characters or scenes, and the plastic reproductions are similarly decorated – so finding a genuine bone stem is very challenging.

Ox horn mouthpieces and endcaps may not be quite as high-class as ivory, but are handsome in their own way and quite serviceable – much like the trusty water buffalo it comes from, that labors all across Southeast Asia.

Horn was also a popular material for opium containers. Pipes of stag horn are quite rare but quite lovely. Opium items crafted from rhinoceros horn do exist, and are extremely expensive, making them a ripe target for faking. Poaching is a terrible threat to the species, and given even the slightest chance an item may be a recent cull rather than a genuine antique, items of rhino horn – real or fake – are best avoided. (To my eye they don’t look particularly appealing anyways.)

Jade

Jade has continuously been one of the most sought-after and celebrated materials in Asian art for millennia. Jade artifacts have been found in burial sites from Neolithic cultures in China as early as 6000 BCE – and jade has retained its status to this day. For example, on any given weekend on the upper floors of the Fuyou market in Shanghai, you can observe a host of jade buyers, perched on portable stools and scrutinizing, with portable magnifiers, the wares from visiting merchants, looking for the perfect specimen.

Jade has been used in such a wide range of applications, from the utilitarian to the ceremonial and decorative, and carries so many associations with it that a short summary can’t do this material justice. It was particularly important as a tribute material in the Imperial court, and as a component of scholars’ objects. Perhaps one way to appreciate its importance is to compare commonly used phrases – in English, one might say, “Pearls of wisdom,” or other phrases associating gold or diamonds with qualities like beauty and grace – but in Chinese, that material is jade.

The term jade actually encompasses two minerals – nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite was the first type of jade, worked since Neolithic times, and found in western areas of China. Extremely valuable white nephrite, worth more than gold or silver, came to China in tributes from Khotan, far up the southern route of the Silk Road. Jadeite, with a wider range of colors than nephrite, began arriving from Burma much later – sometime around 1800 CE – and was popular among the burgeoning middle class of the late Qing era.

A common application for jade in opium equipment is the mouthpiece and endcap on a pipe. Smoking through a mouthpiece of jade was reputed to convey longevity to the smoker; whether that is the case or not, they were certainly appealing to the eye, durable, and comfortable to smoke from.

Another example one sometimes encounters is a pipe bowl made of jade, but here caution is advisable. There are several well-established methods for making fake jade, including injecting lesser materials with polymers and dyes, so it’s already a bit of a question when you look at jade mouthpieces as to whether they are genuine. With larger, heavier items like pipe bowls, that require even more material, the probability of the example being fake goes up further. It’s wise to watch many sales and auctions go by before jumping in to buying a jade pipe bowl, to learn to recognize the rather uniform ‘standard fake’ that shows up on offer more frequently than the real thing.

Semi-precious stones

Semi-precious stones along the top of a pipe saddle

Southern Chinese pipes often have a particular style of saddle, with ornate cut outs in the shapes of clouds or bats, along with a row of mountings for stones along the top of the saddle. A wide variety of translucent and opaque semi-precious stones were used on these pipes, with generally from two to six stones in one or two rows.

This feature also shows up on some of the better fake/replica pipes that are out there, so don’t take the presence of stones like these as a guarantee. Sometimes one will find a pipe – usually a lesser or damaged specimen – where these stones have been pried out, presumably for use on a different pipe.

Ceramics, porcelain, and stoneware

The earliest pottery found in China dates to 20,000 years ago. Over the millennia since, Chinese ceramics grew to be one of the great art forms of the world – an integral component of life and aesthetics throughout China, and a treasured, storied export to the rest of the world.

Among opium objects, the most critical use of ceramics is for pipe bowls, which must be very thermally stable – as part of smoking opium, the bowl is held over the heat of the lamp, and then allowed to cool off again after a bowlful is consumed. The bowl’s material needs to last through thousands of such hot/cool cycles.

Yixing stoneware, with its robust thermal characteristics, has long been popular for teapots – and opium pipe bowls. In addition, unglazed stoneware surfaces absorb traces of the material they contain, so Yixing teapots are usually never washed with soap or detergent – doing so would dislodge the tea residues built up that impart more flavor to their contents. Stoneware pipe bowls have a similar property, absorbing the flavor of the chandu over time and imparting it back to the smoker.

The city of Yixing in Jiangsu province is a major center of stoneware production, but ‘Yixing’ is also used as a catch-all term for similar stoneware materials and products, which may come from other places. The imprinted marks on pipe bowls are often show where they were made, and many were produced in Yixing, but there are many others… for example, Shiwan, another center of ceramics production in Guangdong province. But don’t be surprised to see a Shiwan-made bowl referred to as ‘Yixing-ware’ by a seller or auctioneer.

Porcelain pipe bowls and pipe stems are more rare, and generally command a higher price. Very fancy porcelain-bodied pipes were probably not intended as everyday smoking utensils, and were more like ‘art pieces’.

It is quite common for stoneware, and almost ubiquitous for porcelain, to find items that are glazed or painted with geometric motifs, characters, poems, landscapes, figures, and many other motifs. Stoneware pipe bowls in particular seem to have been a popular canvas for whatever subjects interested or pleased buyers throughout China.

Cloisonné

There are also very rare lamp chimneys made of such fine, thin enamel cells that the material is translucent.

Cloisonne pipes typically have bamboo cores, to provide a better smoking quality. Those without bamboo cores may be pieces meant only for display. In either case, being rare and quite beautiful, they are highly prized.

Paktong (baitong, 白铜, white copper)

A late Qing teapot of paktong with jade mounts

Paktong, literally ‘white copper’ in Chinese, is an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc (with small amounts of lead and tin) that looks very similar to silver. There are many other names for this combination, including baitong, cupronickel, nickel silver, German silver, and more. The term ‘paktong’ gets applied by many antique sellers to basically any metal they find on Chinese items, some which are yellow-gold in color – these are probably brass. Paktong is a silver colored metal, through and through, as its history and chemistry makes very clear.

“White copper” was known in China as early as the third century BCE, and was a valuable trade item. Around 1095 CE, the scholar Ho Wei described the process of transforming copper using ore from Yunnan – and how the result was so like silver that it was used by a local hero to purchase food during a famine year, saving many lives. (Later counterfeiters outside China were not so altruistic; even today, nickel silver is sometimes sold in replica bullion bars, with no indication that they are not elemental silver.)

Chinese paktong candlestick for export

Later, items made from paktong became a valuable export to Europe, alongside those of Chinese export silver. (Sometimes the distinction between the two isn’t entirely clear.) Being corrosion-resistant, paktong was often used for items like candlesticks that would tarnish easily if they were made of silver. Paktong wasn’t viewed as silver’s poor relation, and the detailing on high-end paktong items rivaled that of fine silver specimens. The export of items made from paktong peaked from 1750-1800.

The source of paktong, this naturally occurring nickel ore from Yunnan, contained cobalt and arsenic as well. These additional elements would have complicated matters for anyone trying to re-create paktong without studying a sample of the raw ore. This was a tricky proposition, though – during the Qing era, exporting this Yunnan ore was punishable by death. Finished paktong was a valuable export, and the empire certainly didn’t want anyone investigating the raw ore it came from.

However, Scots scientist James Dinwiddie smuggled some out in 1793, and the alloy’s code was cracked. The cobalt and arsenic needed were found in the Schneeberg district of Germany, and by the 1820’s and 1830’s, Europeans were getting rich smelting paktong in Europe. The metal continued to spread around the world – by the late 19th century, it was a staple in Plains Indian jewelry, for example.

With its beautiful appearance, availability, resistance to corrosion, strength, and malleability, it’s not surprising that paktong was one of the metals of choice for those making opium pipe saddles, lamps, boxes, and other objects.

Copper and brass

Copper and its various alloys such as brass and bronze are used in pipe saddles as well as many other articles. Sometimes metals are layered, with alternating paktong and copper providing a rich effect.

Copper is useful for small opium preparation tools, like spoons or tiny woks, since opium detaches easily from copper surfaces.

Silver, niello, and gold

Silver is used on many high-end opium items – there are lamp bases, pipe saddles and opium boxes made of silver that show amazingly detailed repoussé and chasing.

Niello is a rich black alloy of sulfur with silver, copper, or lead. Applied as a powder to silver items with raised details, the item is then heated until the niello melts and runs into the lowered parts of the surface. It is then scraped down until the raised details are all clear again, and then the whole surface, silver and niello alike, are polished. The resulting surface presents striking silver details against the black background of the niello. Pipe stems of this material are quite striking, and are often lined with a thin bamboo lining to provide a good smoking quality. (Smoking a pipe made of just metal was regarded as quite awful.) Opium boxes are another item where niello shows very well.

Gold wire or inlay is used as a detail on some very high-end items.

Iron and steel, other metals

Harder metals like steel or iron were useful for tools like needles and scrapers, where a certain amount of force had to be used in operating them. Other metals were rare. Even ‘tins’ of opium were made from brass.

Glass

Though there are examples of pipe bowls made of glass – including bowls adapted from glass doorknobs – the primary use of glass in an opium layout is in the chimneys of the lamps. The glass in chimneys is usually smooth or faceted, but there are also unusual specimens made from dark glass, or glass that has been painted with pictoral subjects, or decorated with raised, frosted, and/or tinted Chinese characters.

In some lamps, the oil reservoir and even the lamp base itself are made of glass.

Rosewood and other woods, mother-of-pearl

Rosewood and other dark tropical hardwoods are frequently used on large opium trays. Mother-of-pearl was often used as inlay on wood opium trays, but much less frequently on other items.