Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952

Synopsis

Opium is more than just a drug extracted from poppies. Over the past two centuries it has been a palliative medicine, an addictive substance, a high-value commodity, a powerful mechanism for concentrating and transferring wealth and power between nations, and the anchor of a now vanished sociocultural world in and around China. Opium Regimes integrates the pioneering research of sixteen scholars to show that the opium trade was not purely a British operation but involved Chinese merchants, Chinese state agents, and Japanese imperialists as well. The book presents a coherent historical arc that moves from British imperialism in the nineteenth century to Chinese capital formation and state making at the turn of the century to Japanese imperialism through the 1930s and 1940s and finally to the apparent resolution of China's opium problem in the early 1950s.

Avoiding the Eurocentric focus of earlier approaches, this volume relies on the concept of "opium regimes" in Asia -- the regional and local systems that,states, corporations, and civic associations set up either to profit from or suppress the opium trade. By focusing on these opium regimes, the authors are able to investigate the systematic and comprehensive character of drug-control structures, stressing their capacity for operating in the political realm. The complex interweaving of commodity trading, addiction, and state intervention in opium's history refigured the historical face of East Asia more profoundly than any other commodity.

Excerpt

Without opium, Chinese history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have been far different. Opium thrust the states of East Asia, and the imperial Qing state most of all, into the 'modern' world of unequal treaties and gunboat diplomacy. It gave foreign powers the financial wherewithal to make colonial empire-building feasible. It presented Chinese states from the Qing empire to the People's Republic with unparalleled opportunities to intervene in the lives of Chinese people, and indeed demanded that they do so. On those lives opium had an impact greater than that of any other internationally traded commodity. As smokers, Chinese consumed this addictive substance in volumes that beggar comparison with any other item in their history with the exception of tea—though that comparison belittles opium's potency. As dealers, they set up commercial organizations and networks to handle the trade so as fully to realize its profit-making potential. As peasant farmers, they produced poppy harvests large enough to keep opium in circulation and in consumption long after foreign imports had stopped. As anti-imperialist revolutionaries, they struggled to rid their country of this stain of backwardness and sign of subjugation to foreign commercial and political interests. And as politicians, they devised elaborate regulations to remove the drug from social use and to limit or monopolize distribution so as to keep the huge revenues that opium could yield out of private hands (and sometimes in their own).

Opium's addictiveness has proven irresistible to buyers, profitable to producers and dealers, alluring to states—and endlessly fascinating to those of us who know it only indirectly through history. With so much power vested in one simple substance, with so much evidently to be won and lost, it is not surprising that opium has inspired more in the way of strong reactions than dispassionate research. The sensationalism that seems . . .

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