In the Cambridge History of China John King Fairbank, doyen of modern Chinese studies, characterised the opium trade as 'the most long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times'. Britain, in its merciless pursuit of financial gain, trampled on the sovereign rights of China to enforce a shameful trade which reduced the country to a state of opium slavery. As the silver which Britain had to spend on buying tea from China began to drain the treasury, British merchants discovered that opium found an eager market in that country, starting a huge addiction problem among the local population. The emperor of China was alarmed by opium's devasting impact on his people, and tried to ban the substance and bar foreign smugglers from the country. The British government decided to send an army to fight for the opening of China to foreign trade: it crushed the imperial army with overwhelming military superiority, enforced the opium traffic with gunboats, burnt down the Summer Palace in Beijing, and imposed several unequal treaties during the 'Opium Wars' in the 1840s and '50s. In these first Wars on Drugs, a highly sophisticated civilisation was powerless against the pernicious forces of imperialist aggression, as Britain gradually extended its control over the ports of the country the better to enforce the opium trade. The evil of opium turned China into a nation of hopeless addicts, smoking themselves to death while their civilisation descended into chaos. 

As Mike Jay observes, the image at the core of this belief has rarely been examined, either at the time by contemporaries or more recently by historians, as a variety of interests intersect to replicate it in different contexts: nationalists in China were eager to find a scapegoat in imperialism by emphasising the catastrophic results of the opium trade, at the same time as foreign missionaries and campaigning journalists published sensational reports portraying China as a victim of gunboat policy. During the first decades of the twentieth century, as a narcophobic discourse gradually established itself in other parts of the world, the image of China as an opium slave became the locus classicus of the modern drug debate, the cornerstone of the anti-opium movement, the founding case of concerted international efforts to enforce increasingly draconian measures not only against opium but against all illicit drug use in America, Europe and Asia. China is 'Patient Zero' in what is represented as a drug plague that has contaminated the rest of the globe; it is the single most important example in history of a culture commonly claimed to have been 'destroyed' by an intoxicant other than alcohol. This book systematically questions this image on the basis of extensive primary sources in several languages, including archival evidence from China, Europe and the United States.

'An essential first step in demythologising the Chinese opium problem is to understand the [lack of] scientific evidence about the drug's impact… upon the health of the individual consumer.' Referring to historians of modern China as 'victims of the [opium] myth', the historian of India Richard Newman has criticised the China field for uncritically reproducing the anti-opium stance adopted by prohibitionist missionaries in the late nineteenth century. Newman shows that opium rarely undermined the health or shortened the lives of the majority of smokers in nineteenth-century China. Others have underlined that in England, where opium was widely available from local shops during the nineteenth century, frequent and chronic users did not suffer detrimental effects from opium: many enjoyed good health well into their eighties. In South Asia a diversity of evidence offered by both Indian and British physicians in the nineteenth century showed that opium pills were commonly taken throughout the subcontinent without creating serious social or physical damage, in contrast to the strong spirits imported from abroad in the face of opposition from both the Hindu and Muslim communities. 

This book challenges the image of China as a victim of the opium plague by documenting that in most cases habitual opium use did not have significant harmful effects on either health or longevity: moderate smoking could even be beneficial, since it was a remarkable panacea in the fight against a wide range of ailments before the advent of alternative medications. In Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, it was primarily used as a painkiller before the discovery of aspirin or penicillin in the twentieth century. Opium was extremely effective in fighting fever, blocking dysentery, relieving pain, suppressing coughs and abating hunger. Negative representations often confused the medical symptoms of the diseases, against which opium was taken as a palliative, with the imagined physiological effects of 'addiction'. For instance, its consumption in the countryside tended to increase in times of malnutrition: foreign visitors passing through such 'opium villages' would often attribute the physical effects of famine to those of opium smoking. The Wesleyan missionary and opium opponent John Turner noted at the end of the nineteenth century that the very few emaciated cases which could be found in Canton were rarely due to the 'opium habit': 'He may be a victim of some incurable disease, and smoking merely to dull his pains.'

A second aspect of the opium myth is the conflation of 'opium' with 'China'. Historians of China rarely mention 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 (complemented by a handy injection kit), and that opium products were widely on sale in Britain. As Virginia Berridge outlines, opium fulfilled a crucial role before the availability of modern synthetic drugs: it was a medical panacea for the many in nineteenth-century England and in other parts of the world. In his book on the widespread culture of opium in Laos, Westermeyer astutely observed that the popular link made between China and opium allowed every government in Asia to define opium use as a 'Chinese problem' and hence ignore or downplay indigenous narcotic cultures. Opium was widely cultivated and consumed in India, Persia and Turkey, although historians of China still have to explain why they consider it to have been a 'problem' in China but not in other parts of the world. 

As a global commodity, opium can only be studied within its proper global context, as the first chapter shows. It could be taken in a diversity of ways around the world that need to be accounted for by placing greater emphasis on social context and cultural meaning. Through the rectum as an enema or a suppository; as a liquid when mixed with alcohol; and eaten directly or patched onto wounds as a plaster: how and why these different modes of delivery, including the very choice to smoke opium, were used by different social groups in changing historical circumstances is one of the many questions which we seek to address. 

A third element of the opium myth is the refusal to recognise that most opium use in Europe, the Middle East and Asia was light and moderate. As Virginia Berridge argues, the existence of a class of moderate users was one of the most controversial issues in the opium debate in the late nineteenth century: recognising that the majority of consumers used the substance in moderation and without any fatal 'loss of control' would have undermined the case against cultivation of the poppy. The denial of moderation would also have damaged the medical argument that dosage increases could not be reversed and addiction was unavoidable, making all regular users of the drug hopeless 'addicts' and hostages to the medical authorities who alone could prevent their physical descent to certain death. This book shows that opium was used by many people in moderate quantities: the relative absence of problematic users - rather than a proliferation of 'drug fiends' - is the most striking feature of narcotic culture in late imperial China. Even heroin, which circulated as a substitute for opium in a climate of prohibition during the first decades of the twentieth century, was not used in life-threatening doses by a small circle of social outcasts, as conventional imagery might have it; rather it was taken by many social categories in relatively small and innocuous quantities: in some cases 'heroin pills' contained no heroin at all but consisted of lactose laced with quinine or caffeine. 

Users of opium did not become irremediably enslaved or necessarily caught in a destructive downward spiral. Opium is portrayed in narcophobic discourse as a drug which produced an irresistible compulsion to increase both the amount and frequency of dosage, although the historical evidence shows that very few users were 'compulsive addicts' who 'lost control' or suffered from a 'failure of will'. Richard Miller and others have pointed out that most reach a plateau beyond which they will not increase their consumption levels: users want reliable, not infinite supplies. Tolerance to opium does not increase illimitably, and the idea that smokers become physically dependent on their drugs needs to be examined, since there is relatively little evidence of an 'organic' need for the substance. Like nicotine, opium is a psychotropic which is generally taken in determined amounts rather than ever-increasing ones: even the habitual smoker reaches a plateau, often between seven and fifteen pipes a day, a number rarely exceeded. The same daily dosage could easily be maintained year after year without developing a tolerance that required the user to increase the dose over time. The riddle of opium, as Jean Cocteau observed, is that the smoker never has to increase his dose. 

Another important aspect of the opium myth which needs to be questioned is the narrow concern with the presumed pharmacological properties of the drug, stripping opium use of its cultural meanings and social dimensions. Anti-opium propaganda, Virginia Berridge rightly observes, considered opium smoking in China and opium eating in India in isolation from the cultural and social factors sustaining these practices. The exclusive focus on the pharmacological effects of psychoactive substances, at the expense of an analysis of the social practices and cultural connotations structuring consumer choices, is reflected in the idea that 'drugs' have predetermined effects on all users alike. Michael Gossop believes that 'the idea that specific drugs have fixed and predictable effects which are the same from person to person is extremely widespread but remains a fallacy', since the faith users place in a drug and their expectations largely condition their responses. Opium, like other psychoactive substances, could be used in a variety of social contexts and endowed with different cultural meanings which defy simple stereotypical explanations. We thus shift our analysis away from an emphasis on 'abuse' and 'addiction', which has long dominated the China field, towards use and context. 

By reconstructing the narcotic culture which endowed opium smoking with social significance, we seek to understand why and how this substance assumed such historical importance in parts of China. The use of opium, as of other psychoactive substances, was a social ritual in which users learnt what to feel and what to expect. Those who smoked opium for the first time may have felt nothing in particular. Oden Meeker tried it in Laos in the 1950s and was surprised that 'nothing happened'. In other cases the first experiences of smoking opium may be nausea or constipation. As two experts on opium detoxification in Java commented in 1930, 'practically all opium users report that they became indisposed after the first pipe and that they became accustomed to it and began to like it only very gradually.' These initial reactions had to be overcome by the user, who would learn to appreciate and experience opium as part of an elaborate smoking ritual. Richard Hughes, who tried it in the world's biggest opium house in Bangkok in 1959, thought that he would have derived far more enjoyment from six whiskies than from his six pipes. He noted that many who tried opium would consider it to be overrated: 'Opium is a cultivated taste. And, Western notions to the contrary, talk about opium-smoker's dreams – exotic or terrifying – is mostly nonsense. Whatever the poet says, the poppy opens no "scarlet purse of dreams". De Quincey suffered his monstrous dreams because he drank laudanum and ate opium; that is just as barbarous as smoking opium by yourself; if you smoke, you always smoke in agreeable company.' Peter Lee, a careful and nuanced observer of opium culture, notes: 'Nothing forces the smoker to smoke. The only force at work is the volitional force of the smoker's own free will. For all the various reasons and rationalisations that opium smokers might cite to justify their decision to adopt an addictive and toxic substance as a mainstay of their daily lives, the bottom line still remains their own volition and will.' As the famous 'opium addict' Jean Cocteau found, opium was a choice to be made. 

Opium was prepared and appreciated in highly intricate and complex rituals with inbuilt constraints on excessive use, very much like the tea ceremony which signified social distinction among the ruling elites. It also fulfilled a variety of social roles which endowed its consumption with positive meanings: opium could be alternatively or simultaneously a medical product, a sign of hospitality, a recreational item, a badge of social distinction and a symbol of elite culture. Opium houses, contrary to the myth of the opium den as a dark and depraved trap in which the opium lamp threw a feeble light on the gaping mouths of dazed addicts, were respectable sites of male sociability in which small amounts of opium were shared together with tea, fruit, sweets, snacks and food. In a culture of restraint, opium was an ideal social lubricant which could be helpful in maintaining decorum and composure, in contrast to alcohol which was believed to lead to socially disruptive modes of behaviour. In Java too, as James Rush has observed, opium relaxed the smoker without upsetting social etiquette. Among the hill tribes of northern Thailand, where opium smoking was widespread until it was banned in 1959, alcohol and marijuana were also considered socially undesirable, as these substances tended to excite the user, and thus represented a potential cause of conflict or embarrassment in tight-knit village communities. 

Equally erroneous is the convention that supply determines demand: inanimate substances are granted agency, while human beings become passive objects. Researchers working on the history of opium in China have thus trained their gaze exclusively on issues of supply and policy. However, opium pipes and morphine needles do not have lives of their own: they are granted social lives by their users, the sentient beings who have disappeared behind the smoke-screen of the opium myth which continues to cloud the China field to this day. Outside sinological circles, a consumer-centred approach has been at the heart of the revival in drugs studies since the 1960s: historians and sociologists no longer seriously consider all users to be 'addicts' governed by physical dependence but see them rather as complex human beings whose social experiences should be the main focus of attention if we are to understand substance-influenced behaviour. As David Lenson has observed, the intricate and diverse ways in which drugs interact, collude and even collaborate with human beings in a range of diverse social contexts give psychoactive substances their particular epistemological interest. Opium was not merely 'imposed' by 'imperialism' – although it cannot be denied that better modes of production and transportation significantly lowered its price and that Qing government objections to free trade were met with a military response. Opium was appropriated and used for different reasons by a variety of consumers. The present study attempts to reconstruct the history of opiates 'from below' rather than in a 'trickle-down' perspective. Historians have tried to reconstruct the colonial view from the deck of the gunboat or from the international negotiating table, failing to ask why and how opiates, rather than coffee or cannabis, were so eagerly consumed in the first place.

Another problem which needs to be addressed is the demonisation of 'opium' into a single and uniform substance. As the first chapters show, the paste varied immensely in strength and quality, while most consumers were keen connoisseurs who could distinguish between a large variety of products, ranging from expensive red Persian opium to qualitatively poor local produce. Opium is an extremely complex compound containing sugars, gums, acids and proteins as well as dozens of alkaloids which varied in proportion and content. General statements about the purported effects of 'opium' are thus as vague as blanket condemnations of 'alcohol': a world of difference exists between beer, wine and whisky, which are used in radically different social contexts. Most of the imported paste from India and the locally cultivated opium in China had relatively low morphine content (on average 3-4 per cent), much of which never reached the users' lungs, since smoking was a very wasteful mode of delivery. On the other hand, the opium imported every year into England from Turkey in tens of thousands of tonnes was very rich in morphine (10-15 per cent). Products from India also varied substantially, and these differences are vital in understanding the historical shifts in opiate consumption in China: only when colonial authorities took drastic action to improve the quality of Patna opium in the 1790s would exports significantly increase, overtaking the demand for poor-quality Malwa cultivated and traded by Portugal.

Finally, if opium was a relatively benign substance when used in moderate amounts, as it was by a majority of smokers as part of a culturally privileged habit of sociability in late imperial China, this book provides abundant evidence that the transition from a tolerated opium culture to a system of prohibition produced a cure far worse than the disease. Opium was medicine as much as recreation, and its demonisation was a public health disaster: heroin, morphine and cocaine flooded the market in the wake of the anti-opium movement, and countless other new psychoactive substances were snorted, smoked, chewed or injected. The existence of these substances – many used in conditions far more harmful to health than opium smoking – escapes the confines set by the 'opium myth' and hence the gaze of many historians of China, who seem hardly even to be aware of their existence. However, even cursory examination of the primary sources reveals that the crusade against opium encouraged, however inadvertently, the development of new substances, as well as the existence of criminal gangs who relied on prohibition for their prosperity. Official campaigns facilitated a shift towards morphine injection which proved disastrous for many poor consumers: prohibition priced opium out of their reach, and contributed to the spread of cheaper semi-synthetics like morphine and heroin, encouraged the spread of adulterated products, engendered social exclusions, spawned corruption, and created a criminal underclass. It is not opium that was an imperialist imposition, but the morphine and heroin contained in the 'opium cures' distributed by medical missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century. Supported by moral crusaders abroad and nationalist elites at home, prohibition in China exacerbated rather than contained a 'drug problem'.