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  • Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China
  • Kathleen L. Lodwick (bio)
Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun. Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 (co-published with C. Hurst & Co.). 256 pp. Hardcover $35.00, ISBN 0-226-14905-6.

This book is an interesting but uneven account of narcotics in China. The authors' main thesis is that China did not have a problem with opium until attempts to suppress that drug's use resulted in addiction to the supposed cures. While probably everyone would agree that the so-called cures were frequently as bad as, if not worse than, the addiction to opium, it is hard to accept the idea that China had no problem with opium addiction given the statistics on importation of that drug before and after legalization in 1860. Even so, one would have to agree that addiction to morphine, heroin, and other substances did increase after these were introduced to China as opium cures.

The authors argue that opium use was no more harmful than the use of coffee, tea, or chocolate, citing the ritual nature of opium, coffee, and tea consumption, [End Page 74] yet they never explain why chocolate became a cooking ingredient with no ritual associated with its use.

While I was reading this book, a mishap took me to a hospital emergency room. As the triage nurse was filling out forms and asking me questions, he marked off "No" to the question "Do you use street drugs?" as he was asking and before I could respond. I laughed and said, "No, but I am reading a scholarly monograph which argues that opium addiction is no more harmful than addiction to tea, coffee, or chocolate." His response: "Oh, yeah, sure. I've had this job eighteen years and I have yet to see someone come in here with a stroke induced by chocolate, tea, or coffee." The medical doctors I subsequently encountered all had similar responses, several expressed in not so polite language. The authors of Narcotic Culture would probably dismiss such medical opinions immediately as they are clearly, and curiously, opposed to the development of medical science, viewing such developments as attempts to control the self-treatment of disease; see, for example, page 104, where they view opium as producing "addicts" only after the 1870s, when medical doctors attempted to gain the upper hand over self-medication.

Although the authors discuss the background of the Qing court's decision to ban opium, they state, without citation, that Lin Zexu burned the confiscated opium that the foreigners had turned over to him (p. 45). Contemporary sources by foreigners who witnessed the opium's destruction report that he dumped it into a river. (To my knowledge, no one has yet studied the ecological impact that must have had on downstream marine and shore life.)

In a work so thoroughly researched as this one, it seems curious that the authors never looked at the Chinese Recorder, the monthly Protestant periodical published in Shanghai from 1867 to 19411 Perhaps they had some prejudice against missionary sources (although they do cite the China Medical Missionary Journal and W. H. Park's Opinions of Over 100 Physicians on the Use of Opium in China, which is primarily a survey of missionary doctors), but had they consulted articles in the Chinese Recorder they would have discovered that morphine pills, which were a widely prescribed opium cure, were known in many locales by the hilarious (but to the missionaries appalling) name "Jesus opium," because so many missionaries distributed them. Although they do cite a few missionary doctors who tried cures (pp. 122-125), they do not mention that "opium refuges" were common at mission compounds, and not just those with medical doctors. At these refuges addicts were locked up, fed good food, subjected to sermons, and "cured" usually within three days! (When I once described these "cures" to a medical doctor her comment was "cold turkey, missionary-style.") Once released, these former addicts relapsed almost immediately after returning to the culture in which they had originally become users. Although no one recognized the social causes of addiction...


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