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A Cultural History of the Syringe In Modern China By Frank Dikotter Zhou Xun's article has shown how narcotic substances flooded the market in modem China, as pharmaceutical companies responded to consumer demand by producing a variety of psychoactive substances which competed favourably with opium in a climate of prohibition. 1 This article will highlight the reasons why the syringe became a popular way of administering drugs: not only was it cheap and effective, but it also encountered relatively few cultural obstacles , as an existing needle lore endowed the hypodermic with positive attributes . Recent research has highlighted how biomedicine was selectively appropriated from Europe by cultural intermediaries in China.2 The appropriation of the syringe equally needs to be explained with reference to specific cultural, social and political variables. This article highlights the variety of factors which contributed to the successful inculturation in China of an object still viewed with fear by many in Europe. It will explore the almost magical properties attributed to the syringe in both elite medical culture and popular drug consumption in modem China. Although the hypodermic syringe appeared only in the late nineteenth century , the curative power of the injection captured the imagination of different audiences in China. After-care drugs were initially injected into the veins of opium smokers in detoxification centers, thus introducing many patients for the first time to the hypodermic syringe and contributing to the banalization of injection . Morphine was"commonly applied hypodermically in guesthouses and morphine dens in the 1910s and 1920s. Needles were also used for administering a whole variety of products offered by pharmaceutical companies, from vitamins and tonics to pills and ampoules against cough or a headache. Unscrupulous medical practitioners claiming to be able to cure venereal diseases with the hypodermic needle were legion, a reflection of the popular belief in the efficacy of injected medicine.3 On the other hand, modem medical innovations including serums and vaccines were also reliant on intravenous use. The syringe, in short, cut across the social divides, as the wealthy injected the latest pharmaceutical products while the poor pumped cheap morphine into their veins. The injection of morphine represented a major shift away from the hitherto dominant mode of narcotic consumption, namely opium smoking. As opium Twentieth-Century China, Vol.28, NO.1 (November, 2002): 37-56 38 Twentieth-Century China increasingly became the subject of anti-opium campaigns in the early twentieth century, imports of morphine offered poor consumers a competitive and convenient alternative. However, as in other parts of the world, the syringe also engendered considerable problems, as needles were often dirty, were rarely disinfected when shared, and contained contaminated water used to make the morphine solutions. This was all the more true in China, where the vast majority of morphine users came from the very bottom of the social scale. Contrary to Europe and the United States, where the first generation of "genteel addicts" during the late nineteenth century were generally confined to the middle classes, morphine users in China were overwhelmingly drawn from the lower classes who could no longer afford the price of opium or avoid the long arm of the law. Finally, our own idea that injection habits among drug users are particularly injurious may, of course, be due to culturally determined fears of the syringe which also need to be questioned. Together with the articles by Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun, this article also suggests that prohibition contributed to social exclusion, driving drug consumption down the social ladder as it was criminalized. Anti-opium movements from the late Qing onwards transformed opium from a useful panacea into a harmful substance: both government officials and modernizing elites firmly believed that opium, rather than the fears, fantasies and policies about opium, were undermining society and should be fought. 4 While opium was outlawed in 1906, morphine remained on sale openly until 1914. War on opium created a black market that engendered ever more problems: where prohibition pushed the price of opium upwards, poor smokers switched to morphine injections. Many consumers were forced to use narcotic products in insalubrious conditions, the sharing of dirty needles being an excellent example of how government prohibition policies directly affect...


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pp. 37-56
Launched on MUSE
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