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Narcotic Culture

A History of Drugs in China

To this day, the perception persists that China was a civilization defeated by imperialist Britain’s most desirable trade commodity, opium—a drug that turned the Chinese into cadaverous addicts in the iron grip of dependence. Britain, in an effort to reverse the damage caused by opium addiction, launched its own version of the "war on drugs," which lasted roughly sixty years, from 1880 to World War II and the beginning of Chinese communism. But, as Narcotic Culture brilliantly shows, the real scandal in Chinese history was not the expansion of the drug trade by Britain in the early nineteenth century, but rather the failure of the British to grasp the consequences of prohibition.

In a stunning historical reversal, Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun tell this different story of the relationship between opium and the Chinese. They reveal that opium actually had few harmful effects on either health or longevity; in fact, it was prepared and appreciated in highly complex rituals with inbuilt constraints preventing excessive use. Opium was even used as a medicinal panacea in China before the availability of aspirin and penicillin. But as a result of the British effort to eradicate opium, the Chinese turned from the relatively benign use of that drug to heroin, morphine, cocaine, and countless other psychoactive substances. Narcotic Culture provides abundant evidence that the transition from a tolerated opium culture to a system of prohibition produced a "cure" that was far worse than the disease.

Delving into a history of drugs and their abuses, Narcotic Culture is part revisionist history of imperial and twentieth-century Britain and part sobering portrait of the dangers of prohibition.

256 pages | 20 halftones | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 2004

Asian Studies: East Asia, General Asian Studies

Culture Studies

History: Asian History, General History

Sociology: General Sociology, Social History


"[This is an] informative, scholarly and dispassionately fascinating book. . . . Drawing on a wealth of recent research, Narcotic Culture explodes various myths surrounding the use of opium in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China. Conventionally, and also according to Communist propaganda, the West (especially the beastly British) willfully debilitated the Chinese empire by turning its denizens into emaciated opium addicts, stripping it of huge quantities of hoarded silver in the process. When the Chinese objected, the British responded with a show of brute imperialist force.

Skillfully deploying historical and medical evidence, Narcotic Culture stands all this on its head. The British and their mercantile allies may actually have done the Chinese a favour. In an age when modern medicines were unavailable, opium became a near-universal, inexpensive panacea against the symptoms of dysentery, cholera, malaria and other endemic diseases. . . . Narcotic Culture teases out the complex relationship between tolerance and suppression. It needs to be read far outside the community of Sinologists whence it has emanated."

Justin Wintle | Independent (UK)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Global Spread of Psychoactive Substances (c. 1600-1900)
3. Opium before the ’Opium War’ (c. 1600-1840)
4. Opium for the People: Status, Space and Consumption (c. 1840-1940)
5. ’The Best Possible and Sure Shield’: Opium, Disease and Epidemics (c. 1840-1940)
6. War on Drugs: Prohibition and the Rise of Narcophobia (c. 1880-1940)
7. Curing the Addict: Prohibition and Detoxification
8. Pills and Powders: The Spread of Semi-Synthetic Opiates (c. 1900-1940)
9. Needle Lore: The Syringe in China (c. 1890-1950)
10. China’s Other Drugs (c. 1900-1950)
11. Conclusion
Character List

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