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  • Living on Borrowed Time: Opium in Canton, 1906–1936 by Xavier Paulès
  • José Antonio Cantón Álvarez (bio)
Xavier Paulès, translated by Noel Castelino. Living on Borrowed Time: Opium in Canton, 1906–1936. China Research Monograph, vol. 74. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2017. x, 334 pp. Paperback $25.00, isbn 978-1-55729-174-5.

Steaming out of his Ph.D. thesis, Xavier Paulès' Living on Borrowed Time aims to shed light on the history and economy of opium in Canton during the aftermath of the Qing Empire and the Republic of China. Paulès' study combines approaches ranging from disciplines of anthropology, economic history, political history, history of consumption to human geography, in order to render a complex and detailed analysis of the role of opium in modern Chinese history. The author seeks to analyze both the supply and the demand sides of the opium trade in early twentieth century Canton, as well as its political and social impact. Based on an impressive array of local and diplomatic sources, this study offers a new methodological approach, that of microhistorical analysis, to the study of the subject. Moreover, Paulès' monograph presents an exceptionally well-researched and consistent defense of the argument that rather than being the main ill of the early twentieth century China, opium's negative social role was largely demonized and exaggerated. As such, the book carves a niche for itself as one of the most original and thorough contributions in the recent revisionist trend in the historical scholarship.

The book begins with an in-depth description of opium as a commodity from an anthropological point of view. Paulès' study presents opium as a versatile product in early twentieth century China, one coming in many varieties and consumed in diverse ways. At the time, opium was no longer a high-end product only affordable to the Chinese elites. Factors such as the appearance of new modalities of the drug, for example, morphine, heroine, and [End Page 91] especially yantiao, as well as the development of the production of Chinese opium, had contributed to the decrease in its price after 1920. This change resulted in the extension of the drug's consumption to lower social classes. In this chapter, Paulès also describes the main smuggling circuits in Guangdong province at the time, providing a detailed picture of the ever-changing organizational set-up enabling the trade through Macao, Hong Kong, and even Vietnam.

After analyzing opium as a commodity, Paulès devotes the following two chapters to investigating the connection between the opium trade and the local politics of Canton. For that, the author first looks into the 1906–1923 period, when the late imperial and early republican local authorities made major efforts to tackle the opium trade in the city. The author shows how the eradication of opium consumption in Canton became an integral part of the authorities' agenda to modernize the city. However, as Paulès explains, the initiatives at opium eradication undertaken by local warlords like Long Jiguang and Chen Jitang reflect the ambivalent attitudes of Cantonese authorities towards the opium trade. While denouncing it in public, the authorities took part and benefited from the trade, making it a substantial part of the urban government revenue. Thus, the author offers a nuanced picture of the interdependence between opium and politics in Canton, one that looks at the ambiguity of the official measures without meting out moral judgement typical of Chinese studies on the opium trade in republican times.

After presenting the role of opium trade in the politics of Canton during the period, Paulès focuses on the geography of opium consumption in the city, providing, once again, a very detailed investigation of the spatial dimension of opium consumption in Canton. For that, Paulès looks into a wide variety of locations, for example, teahouses, restaurants, brothels, and clubs; but focuses mainly on the geographical distribution of dedicated opium houses. The author reveals that while opium houses were concealed in the centre of the city, they were openly established in the Canton's peripheral parts, such as Honam, eventually turning the...


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