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Reviewed by:
  • The Social Life of Opium in China
  • David Bello (bio)
Yangwen Zheng . The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiii, 241 pp. Hardcover $70.00, ISBN 0-521-84608-0. Paperback $29.99, ISBN 0-521-60856-2.

Around fifteen or so years ago, research on opium in Asian history appeared done. Aside from a few perennially nagging questions generally concerning the precise economic and political effects of-implicitly related to moral responsibilities for-mass drug consumption, almost all serious research questions the sources could sustain seemed answered or beyond practical inquiry. Since that time, however, a body of important English-language work on opium in South, East, and Southeast Asia has emerged that employs newer theoretical perspectives to not only reinterpret familiar materials but identify new sources as well. This work is too extensive for the present reviewer, despite being a contributor, to keep up with in detail. It is generally valid, however, to say that current studies largely focus on various aspects of state-oriented production and distribution rather than on those of popular consumption. This situation makes Zheng Yangwen's book particularly welcome and necessary in order to begin to restore a more balanced approach to what was probably the nineteenth century's single most valuable-and by now certainly one of history's most intensely studied-commodities. Influenced by the work of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff, her work examines opium "biographically" to rectify an increasingly glaring deficit of relevant book-length studies. Zheng's more general inspiration and contribution, however, come from her engagement with the extensive work in European history on cultures of consumption.

Opium's biography begins with its "birth" as a recreational drug in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to its "old age as a social icon" in the twentieth century. It [End Page 529] should be noted that while the cover asserts that the book covers an immense period of time from 1483 to the late twentieth century, the narrative is centered in the second half of the Qing period (1644-1911) and devotes only a few pages to post-1949 issues. Ten of the book's twelve chapters deal mainly or exclusively with the Qing period, and are bracketed by single chapters devoted to the Ming and Republican (1911-1949) periods, respectively. The book's actual chronological span is certainly sufficiently ambitious, as it is covered in little over 200 pages of text supplemented by lavish illustrations, mainly photographs of late Qing material culture and consumption.

Zheng begins with an account of opium's social debut as an aphrodisiac, in contrast to its traditional function as a treatment for a range of ailments, and then traces the drug's historical development from a foreign import to an indigenous article of consumption, as facilitated by similar Chinese experience with initially foreign tobacco. Most significantly Zheng contextualizes opium's spread and consequent "naturalization" (i.e., sinification) within nineteenth-century coastal China's fad for "foreign stuff" (yanghuo). Several chapters examine aspects of this naturalization process centered partly on issues of elite consumption's exclusive responsibility for China's much-debated "silver drain," the unfavorable balance of trade effected by opium smokers. The social traces of the drug's legitimation as a Chinese consumer product in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are examined from the perspectives of gender relations, literature, and material culture. Opium's sinification culminates in the drug's "modernization" in the 1930s as a profit- and revenue-generating article of consumption equivocally tainted by its association with both Japanese imperialism and warlordism, the twin scourges of this period.

One of the book's most valuable contributions to the immense existing literature is its use of unofficial sources to document the culture of opium smoking on the southeast coast. Zheng convincingly demonstrates opium's central role in the sex recreation industry, and the drug's linkages to the southeast coast's wider enthusiasm for the conspicuous consumption of goods imported mainly from European merchants active in Canton (Guangzhou). She also provides further evidence for the significance of the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820) as critical for the spread of opium smoking, especially among...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 529-533
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-24
Open Access
No
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