Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China/The Troublesome Legacy of Commissioner Lin: The Opium Trade and Opium Suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s

By Wong, J. Y. | The China Journal, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China/The Troublesome Legacy of Commissioner Lin: The Opium Trade and Opium Suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s


Wong, J. Y., The China Journal


Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, by Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun. London: Hurst & Company, 2004. xii + 319 pp. £25.00 (hardcover).

The Troublesome Legacy of Commissioner Lin: The Opium Trade and Opium Suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s, by Joyce A. Madancy. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004. xviii + 430 pp. US$50.00 (hardcover).

Narcotic Culture attempts to demolish a case established by a whole generation of China scholars. The case was encapsulated by the late John Fairbank in the Cambridge History of China when he stated that the opium trade "was the most long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times". In attacking this orthodoxy the three authors of Narcotic Culture assert in Chapter 1 that habitual opium use (1) "did not have significant harmful effects on either health or longevity: moderate smoking could even be beneficial"; (2) was widespread in Europe and America; (3) seldom produced "compulsive addicts" who "lost control" of themselves; (4) was considered "a sign of hospitality, a recreational item, a badge of social distinction and a symbol of elite culture" in China; and (5) was suppressed by do-good missionaries and government officials who used "heroin, morphine and cocaine" as substitutes, resulting in a public health disaster in China (pp. 1-9). The rest of the book is given over to trying to vindicate this view.

Chapter 2 describes the global spread of the so-called psychoactive substances (tea, coffee, coca, spirits, tobacco and opium) after the fifteenth century. Given the purpose of the book as set out in Chapter 1, it seems unclear why the book needs to deal not only with the spread of opium but also these other stimulants.

Chapter 3 uses James Polachek's thesis to argue that, had Emperor Daoguang acted on the advice of the Manchu elite who were opposed to the prohibition of opium, "there probably never would have been an opium war" (p. 44). But it does not explain why the emperor, a Manchu himself, should risk cutting himself off from his own power base by siding with the Han Chinese officials who argued for prohibition, allegedly with the ulterior motive of undermining the authority of the Manchu elite (p. 45) who were the foundation of his power.

Chapter 4 attempts to explain the widespread use of opium in China in the second half of the nineteenth century, arguing that "the advent of steam navigation improved the transportation of opium, innovations in banking facilitated monetary transactions, and modern chemistry made possible a qualitative expansion of the range of opiates on offer" (p. 47). However, it overlooks the most important reason for the rapid increase in the importation and spread of foreign opium, namely, the de facto legalization of the importation of opium as a result of the Arrow War of 1856-60.

The book rejects the view that "opium smoking had devastating economic consequences" on the grounds that "smokers could determine the quantity and quality of opium they wanted to consume" (p. 56). Where are the pertinent statistics? The book does not provide any, merely claiming that "While the available statistical evidence is often contradictory, it does not support the prevalent view that a majority of smokers lived in the grips of addiction and were compelled to take ever-increasing amounts of opium" (p. 57). It is stated that "A variety of figures indicate that opium was smoked widely but in relatively small quantities" (p. 57); but again where are these figures? The book does give one figure, that for 1879, showing an annual consumption of some 25,000 tonnes (pp. 52-53), adding that "any smoker who used more than a mace (3.78 grams) per day could be seen as 'dependent'", (p. 53). Readers can work out for themselves roughly how many dependent opium-smokers there were in China in 1879.

Chapter 5 sings the praises of this wonder drug. It could "reduce pain, fight fevers and suppress coughs.

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