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Pain and Pleasure: Opium as Medicine in Late Imperial China by Lars P.Laamann Opium and China are synonymous, yet historians have so far failed to answer one key question: why was opium rather than cannabis or coffee so eagerly consumed?l Much has been written on the role of the opium trade in the confrontations between China and the West in the nineteenth century,2 while several recent books closely scrutinise the politics of anti-opium movements in the twentieth century.3 Few scholars, however, have explained why opium was so popular in the first place. Who consumed opium and why did opium rather than alcohol, the coca leaf or hashish assume such overwhelming cultural and social significance? Only by shifting the emphasis from an analysis of production and supply towards a history of consumption and demand can we start to offer an answer to these crucial questions. A consumer-centered history of psychoactive substances acknowledges that "drugs," like other goods and commodities , are social constructs that have a variety of shifting and ambiguous meanings for users. Rather than seeing "opium" as a uniform substance with intrinsic properties that exist independently from the social context in which its consumption takes place, research should analyse the "habits of consumption" which endow psychoactive substances with cultural significance.4 Historians have not paid sufficient attention to the question of how and why different opiates were consumed in early twentieth-century China. The present article shows that opium was particularly popular because it was used primarily to relieve the symptoms of diseases such as dysentery and malaria and as a tonic to help consumers cope with fatigue, hunger and cold. It also suggests that historians of China have failed to highlight the extent to which opium was consumed for similar reasons in many other parts of the world: as "opium" and "China" have become virtually indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, historical amnesia has erasedthe fact that Europe was awash with narcotic substances well into the twentieth century. Mike Jay has recently noted that any respectable person in Europe or America could walk into a pharmacy in 1900 and routinely buy a range of hashish pastes, exotic psychedelics or morphine together with a handy injection kit, while opium was widely available from most comer shops in Britain .5 As outlined by Virginia Berridge, opium fulfilled a crucial role before the Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 28, No.1 (November, 2002): 1-20 2 Twentieth-Century China availability of modem synthetic drugs: opium was a panacea for the many in nineteenth-century England.6 Similarly, the most prominent motive for consuming opium in China was self-medication: to assuage pain, prevent fevers and numb the mind when the cra:ving for food became overbearing. While physical dependence may have been problematic for a minority of consumers, the recreational and medicinal uses of opium consumption have been hidden behind the dominant narcophobia of the twentieth century. 7 Where psychoactive substances have attracted the scholarly attention they deserve, the problems of "addiction" and "abuse" have generally been addressed at the expense of use and context.s Many China scholars simply assume that any type of opiate consumption invariably ends in "addiction," thus reproducing the very premises of the anti-opium discourse that first appeared among missionaries in the late-nineteenth century, before becoming the tenet of nationalism in modem China. As prime symbol of "foreign imperialism," opium was portrayed by nationalists as an evil substance which accounted for the country's weak position in the international community. Using zeal rather than evidence, antiopium crusaders transformed opium from a relatively benign substance into a dangerous drug to be stamped out at all cost. Whereas sociological and anthropological studies have begun to shed light on the meanings and uses of psychoactive substances in a variety of complex cultural contexts, it has taken an historian of India, Richard K. Newman, to point out the highly tendentious portrayal of China's psychotropic past.9 Referring to historians of modem China as "victims of the [opium] myth," Newman argued that "an essential first step in demythologising the Chinese opium problem is to understand the [lack...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 1-20
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-25
Open Access
No
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