The Unexpected End of a Success Story: Opium 1800-1906

Xavier Paules

The fact that opium took root very quickly in China during the first decades of the nineteenth century is well-known and has driven the attention of many scholars. In order to explain it, they came out with a series of reasons that made Chinese society prone to take up the habit in such a short period a time.

The purpose of this paper is to reconsider this success in the light of intercultural comparatism. First, a series of clues points at the fact that the success of opium in China was not unique in Asia; it had an important presence in at least two other places, namely, India and Java. But interestingly, these two countries did not belong to the sphere of China direct cultural influence. By contrast, China’s neighboring countries, which shared many cultural feature with China (Vietnam, Korea, Japan), never reached high levels of consumption. As a consequence, the specific success of opium in China was also the result of a transcultural exchange, but one that never took place. The case of Japan, which remained remarkably hostile to opium, points at the decline of China’s prestige and influence (the Western powers became the models to emulate) as the main reason for this great divergence.

Because the practice did not percolate through its neighbors, China turned out to be seen (in western eyes, but also more widely) as “the country of opium”. The vision of the Chinese opium smoker lying on his couch with the relevant paraphernalia became a cliché. This fact was crucial because it provided the main reason for the specific hostility towards opium that became a feature in the weltanschauung of the intellectual progressive elite of the late nineteenth century (for ex. Yan Fu, Liang Qichao). Opium, seen a source of national humiliation (guochi) became their bête noire and they soon succeeded in convincing all layers of society that opium was a key factor in China’s weakness. The three campaigns (1906-1916, 1935-1940, 1950-1953) which lead to eradication are the consequence of the existence of a consensus over the absolute necessity to suppress opium.

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