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  • Small Time Crooks:Opium, Migrants, and the War on Drugs in China, 1819–1860
  • Melissa Macauley (bio)

Zhang Rui moved from Tianjin to Beijing to open a fish shop just inside the Desheng Gate. On a visit home to Tianjin in late November 1844, he encountered a boatman dealing in inexpensive raw opium and "came up with the idea of selling it in order to fish for profit." He purchased twenty-one liang of raw opium and carried the contraband back to his shop in Beijing. Together with Wang Yongde, his shop assistant and fellow Tianjin native, he processed the opium into the concoction enjoyed by consumers. They also invested in various opium paraphernalia in the expectation that they would sell these items along with the processed opium and "turn an even greater profit." Their hopes were not misplaced as income from their opium business soared and, presumably, fish sales continued apace.

On the evening of January 10, 1845, old friends and family from Tianjin and elsewhere who engaged in the fish, lumber, and mutton-selling trades came to his shop "to discuss the prevailing price of fish." Just as they were sitting down, officials came to inspect the shop and discovered the remaining opium, porcelain opium bowls, and bamboo pipes. Six men were arrested, but only Zhang and Wang were found guilty of opium dealing. Officials accepted the stories the other men told that they had no idea Zhang and Wang were selling opium out of their shop. Wang was also convicted for opium smoking, for he confessed that he had just happened to smoke opium for the first and only time in his life the very afternoon of his arrest. Both men admitted their crimes and asked for mercy, insisting that they had sold opium only "this one time" and [End Page 1] that Wang had used opium that afternoon only to cure a stomachache. They were sentenced to strangulation after the Autumn Assizes.1

The incident just described was typical of cases involving the crimes of selling and consuming opium in China in the first half of the nineteenth century in several respects: The majority of people arrested and subjected to the draconian opium laws of the day tended to be migrants to the districts in which they were arrested; the legal system targeted migrants. In terms of social status, those arrested for opium crimes hailed from petty entrepreneurial classes (peddlers and small shopkeepers) or the lower orders: servants, laborers, entertainers, and the like. On the very rare occasion when a scholar-elite or wealthy merchant was arrested and convicted, it was usually because something in the case, like a botched attempt at extortion, had gone awry; the legal system targeted the small time crook.

The cases collectively propagate a criminal stereotype depicting an impoverished, independently-operating opium dealer full of entrepreneurial drive and lured by the promise of vast profits. Zhang Rui reflects a familiar social type in the criminal archives. Looked at more closely, however, other cases strongly imply that similarly described culprits were in fact mere cogs in someone else's enterprise and, indeed, these more unusual cases reflect the class patterns of the highly capitalized and organized Guangdong smuggling syndicates that were emerging at home and in Southeast Asia by the early nineteenth century. The migratory poor engaged in the quotidian labor of buying and selling opium for their wealthier patrons and were therefore more likely to be swept up in the Chinese war on drugs of the first half of the nineteenth century. Reflecting a distinctive feature of southeast coastal Chinese legal culture, however, socially subordinate people sojourning from that region were not entirely unwilling to "take the rap" for their social betters, especially when those social betters proved entirely adept at protecting the people of their native place from the reach of Chinese law.

Indeed, drug-smuggling networks historically have subverted the efforts of statebuilders to extend central governmental authority into the local arena. As one military anthropologist has recently observed in Afghanistan, the Taliban encourages local farmers in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar to grow and sell poppy "because they are trying to detach the local people from the legal...


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