In 1421, China's Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor ordered his fleet to convey an imperial edict with hats and robes on the king of Aden. The envoys boarded three treasure ships and left Sumatra to the port of Aden. As we shall see later there was good reason for the gifts, Aden at that time, along with the Suez canal later, being in many respects the naval port and gateway to facilitate east west trade which was critical to Chinese interests.
The Opium Wars, also known as Anglo-Chinese Wars, started with the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842 which were the result of disputes over trade between China in the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. The Chinese Canton System in 1756 restricted trade to one port, so that they could monitor British trade, resulted in the British East India Company as result of the huge demand for tea in the west, facing an imbalance in favour of China, which the British redressed, with the cultivation of the Chinese population to opium addiction, in return for trading Chinese tea. Similar to Ireland today, after what they call the peace process, where British intelligence agencies, control the distribution of hard drugs from their military in Afghanistan poppy fields, to their agents and paramilitary groups, in every part of Ireland, to control the Irish population with murderous consequence.
The British merchants brought opium from the British East India Company's factories in Patna and Benares in British Occupied India to China, where they sold it to Chinese smugglers, who then distributed the drug in defiance of Chinese laws. The Chinese realizing the drain on their silver currency and the growing numbers of addicts, resulted in the Emperor demanding action. Some officials advocated legalizing the trade in order to tax it but were defeated by those who advocated arresting opium dealers and demanding the British turn over their stocks, initially refusing but eventually the merchants surrendered their opium to be destroyed. The British government then sent military forces from India, which plundered the Chinese coast, in order to dictate the terms of a settlement. The Treaty of Nanking allowed further opium trade, ceded territory, including Hong Kong, fixed Chinese taxes at low rates, granting privileges to foreigners not offered to Chinese overseas. Disputes by British merchants in Chinese ports led to the Second Opium War later.
With British Occupied India and its poppy fields under Britain's control and the strong mass appeal and addictive nature, opium was an effective solution to the British trade imbalance problem and the British simply had an insatiable greed. Within the Chinese mandarinate there continued an ongoing debate over legalising the opium trade. The Emperor a teenager who spent most of his time in bed with his concubines, many of them opium users themselves.
The story of the mid-Ming dynasty, where opium was a gift by vassal states, then used as an aphrodisiac in court. Eventually Chinese people from different classes and regions began using it for recreational purposes in a complex culture of opium. The transformation overtime led to its spread across all sections of society, embraced by rich and poor as a culture in its own right. The alternative perspective on life in China during this time is still for political reasons confined to scholars of history, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, East Asian studies.
Around this time, the British were selling roughly 1,400 tons per year to China. In 1839, the Chinese Emperor Lin, published a letter addressed to Queen Victoria, questioning the morals of the British government. This was just before the British executed a holocaust of ethnic cleansing in Ireland, which cleared Ireland of 6 million people many of whom died of starvation. Citing a strict prohibition of the trade within Great Britain itself, Lin questioned how they could then profit from the highly addictive hard drug in China. He wrote: "Your Majesty has not before been this officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever." The British government and merchant's response to Lin was to send a large British Indian army to enforce their drug dealing.
British military superiority, based on new technology along with warships, raped Chinese coastal towns, with ships supporting gun platforms with very heavy guns. British troops were armed with modern muskets and cannons which fired more rapidly and with greater accuracy than Chinese firearms and artillery. The British took Canton, sailed up the Yangtze, took the Chinese tax barges, a huge blow to the Chinese Empire, as it slashed the income of their imperial court in Beijing. The Treaty of Nanking forced the Chinese to pay taxes to Britain, opening four ports and ceding Hong Kong to Queen Victoria. The Qing empire recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British extraterritorial privileges in ports.
Opium is a story which historians have failed to set in its proper social and cultural context neither taking account of the extent of its consumption in the history of modern China. Preferring to dwell on the opium trade, opium wars, imperialism and the politics of control, which is very relevant in places as far away as contemporary Ireland. The political history of opium, like its wars are only part of the story. The questions are at the point of which opium transformed from medicine into luxury use and why it was so popular and widespread when people learned of its recreational value. Understanding modern China is not possible, without understanding who smoked opium, when and why. The fact is the Chinese embraced smoking and using opium.
The social life of ‘Mr. Opium’ from birth as a recreational item to his old age as a social icon, is a perspective on the circulation of commodities and the things that are exchanged with their meanings inscribed on their forms, uses and trajectories. In the analysis of these trajectories we can interpret the human transaction and calculations that enliven China, for example. The social signiﬁcance of Opium smoking was inscribed in its vanguard consumers, who were the literati, the ofﬁcials with the pipes packed with precious stones and symbolic designs. Chinese people from different classes, regions and times, endowed many meanings to opium from luxury to necessity.
Many of those who wrote about opium, used sources prohibitionist in nature, the products of political revisionism. It is the same problem of writers about drinking and other popular cultures. Information on the lives of the common people or Ireland for example usually comes from the outsider or from those regarded as a 'socially superior perspective'. Opinions of elite observers, have shaped historical generations, as opposed to that seen through the eyes of popular cultures on say public drinking, resulting in expressions of a degraded perspective, on the lower classes, and the pub or bar a symbol of misery and debauchery.
The perception of opium suffered the same fate. Historians using prohibitionist sources, provided by governments of the day perpetuating the prejudiced official line in condemnation of opium. Scholars and officials have cautioned about the prejudice of official histories. Sources of a historian are threefold; official history, family history and unofficial history. Older generations of Chinese warned about the problem of Chinese history being written by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, explain why official history has a solemn ethical function, the duty of expressing praise and blame as in the instance of say modern Irish revisionist history. Below is an excerpt from an alternative.
"The ‘genealogical method of anthropological inquiry’ is revolutionary, as Kopytoff has pointed out. His example is slavery. Slavery began with capture; an individual was dehumanised, commoditised and later rehumanised when he/she was reinserted into the host group. Dehumanisation begins the biography of a slave; it also marks ‘the diversion of commodities from preordained paths’. Opium was likewise diverted; from a herbal medicine it moved to become a luxury item. Diversion is ‘frequently a function of irregular desires and novel demands’. This could not have been more evident with opium in 1483, when a medicinal herb became ‘the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies’.2 This diversion shaped the history of opium and indeed of China for five hundred years to come. ‘A more theoretically aware biographical model’, Kopytoff stressed, should be ‘based on a reasonable number of life histories’. This book is the life history of opium as an aphrodisiac from the mid-Ming, as an expensive yanghuo or ‘foreign stuff’ and hobby among the scholar–official elite in the eighteenth century, and as a popular culture in the late Qing–Republican era and beyond. These histories tell us who smoked opium, when and why; they also help us to stitch together a much more complete picture of the Ming–Qing–Republican economy, and of its culture and society, and enable us to see both change and continuity in the culture of opium consumption.
This book examines opium from a cultural perspective because, as Daniel Roche has emphasised, ‘Any object, even the most ordinary, embodies ingenuity, choices, a culture. A body of knowledge and a surplus of meanings are attached to all objects.’3 Roche’s example is clothing. ‘Clothing speaks of many things at once, either in itself or through some detail. It has a function of communication because it is through clothing that everyone’s relation to the community passes.’4 The same can be said of other forms of consumption, including opium smoking. Roche emphasised that one should pay attention to the whole as well as to the parts; the signs that indicate minorities, the colours that can characterise social functions and membership of different groups, the cut, the material, the types of jewellery. For this, reference the smoking sets and accessories that accompanied opium smoking. Roche also advanced much more: ‘the history of consumption must include analysis of demand, and therefore of the structuring of needs, the classification of consumers, the circuits of distribution and the spatial organisation of supply’.5 To understand needs, we must understand ‘the texture of our ordinary life’, that is, ‘the real weight of everyday life’, or the ‘history of what seems to have no history: material life and biological behaviour, history of food, history of the consumption of food’.6 For the Chinese, opium smoking, like tea drinking, was material life and biological behaviour, a history of food and a culture of consumption.
Pierre Bourdieu is significant here. His influential La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement studied ‘the science of taste and cultural consumption’.7 Bourdieu applied this science to the consumption of the arts and music; I shall extend it to that of opium. Bourdieu saw taste as ‘markers of class’ and consumption as ‘predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences’. This was true with opium as its vanguard consumers, the literati and officials, enjoyed opium long before the ‘ordinary’ people heard about it. It was they who made opium smoking cultured and a status symbol; they who marked themselves apart from those below them, legitimating their social differences. Bourdieu analysed the consumption of pictorial and musical works. ‘A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.’8 An opium pipe carved with an epic poem and served by a highly literate courtesan was limited to and had meaning for those who could appreciate the poetry and exchange-coded language. Bourdieu had ‘one foot in structural Marxism and the other in cultural studies’.9 The case of opium supports this approach. Opium was an aristocratic luxury item during the Ming dynasty. It became a necessity during the late nineteenth century. The story of opium is the story of taste and distinction; it is also the story of politics and class formation.
One of the most influential works on consumption is Jean Baudrillard’s La Soci´et´e de consommation: ses mythes, ses structures. For Baudrillard, consumption is ‘a language’.10 Breaking away from a standard productivist orientation, the post-modern social theorist believed that consumption was ‘both a morality and a communication system, a structure of exchange’.11 This was certainly true of opium smoking, where offering the smoke to friends, colleagues and guests involved a fundamental Chinese socio-cultural value in the late Qing–early Republican era. Regardless of whether one sanctioned opium or not, one must offer the smoke in order to be ‘ti mian’ (polite or fashionable), thus a Chinese ‘morality’, ‘communication system’ and ‘structure of exchange’ was created. Many sought to catch up with the Joneses; consumption became conspicuous. Consumption itself is subject to individual manipulation; it is also ‘subject to social control and political redefinition’.12 Parallels can be drawn to alcohol in general and vodka in particular. Opium is a perfect example of the political redefinition of consumption. When the rich smoked it, it was cultured and a status symbol; when the poor began to inhale, opium smoking became degrading and ultimately criminal. The lower classes made the consequences of smoking visible and social; the literati and officials had the power to reinterpret consumption. Consumption has never been a simple economic matter.
Mary Douglas proposed ‘a distinctive anthropological perspective’ in Constructive Drinking.13 Anthropologists brought ‘their own professional point of view to bear interestingly upon the same materials studied by specialists on alcohol abuse’. They argued that medical and sociological research exaggerated the problems. As Dwight Heath pointed out, ‘Even practitioners of the so-called “hard sciences” acknowledge that social and cultural factors must be taken into account, together with physiological and psychological factors, when one attempts to understand the interaction of alcohol and human behaviour.’14 I extend this distinctive anthropological perspective to opium because drinking and smoking are the obvious analogies. ‘Drinking is essentially a social act, performed in a recognized social context’; so it was with opium smoking.15 Many authors have studied the social context of consumption. David Christian’s Living Water argued that vodka played a crucial role in Russian society on the eve of the Revolution. Thomas Brennan illustrated the ‘positive uses of drinking’ in prerevolutionary Paris. And David Hardiman exposed the different political agendas injected into drinking in colonial India. Brennan’s work is important because it challenged the heavily used accounts of the intermediaries, ‘the three robes’ – the clergy, the nobility and the liberal professions – their condemnation of taverns and consequently their influence on the study of popular culture.16 Here, I will challenge the heavily used accounts of ‘the Chinese robes’.
Deborah Lupton has furthered our understanding of the history of food and the culture of consumption. ‘Food and eating habits and preferences are not simply matters of “fuelling” ourselves’, she writes.17 This was true of opium, since smoking did not fill one’s stomach. ‘Food is inextricably interlinked with group membership as well as kinship’, Lupton continues, and again, opium is a good example where friends and family gathered to share leisure through smoking. Food is ‘the ultimate “consumable” commodity’; so was opium.18 George Ritzer has identified ‘McDonaldization’, a process whereby corporations cater to the ‘lowest common denominator’ of mass consumer culture.19 The same happened with opium in the late Qing, when smoking catered for the lowest Chinese common denominator – coolie labourers and peasants. Peter Atkins and Ian Bowler have summarised recent trends in food studies. Where functionalists emphasise ‘the utilitarian nature of food’, structuralists focus on the ‘broader and deeper causes and meanings of food habits’ and on how ‘taste is culturally shaped and socially controlled’.20 Opium smoking was utilitarian in nature, but it was also socio-culturally conditioned. Structural functionalists such as Mary Douglas draw upon elements of both approaches. Douglas has deciphered the grammar of the meal, a structured social event. I will decode the syntax of opium smoking by ‘mov[ing] away from a reliance upon the production-oriented explanations of society, which [have] for so long dominated materialism, towards a framework that can accommodate considerations of consumption and lifestyle’.21 This is pertinent to the study of opium as a commodity and smoking as history of food and culture of consumption."
This culture is of course quite similar to the Concubinage culture, where a concubine generally a woman is in a marriage like relationship with whom she cannot get married for other reasons. Often only men of high economic or social status have concubines, because it can be expensive. Historical rulers maintained concubines, sometimes thousands, as well as several wives. Normally concubinage was voluntary by the woman or her family's by arrangement, providing a measure of economic security for both parties. In ancient China, concubinage was similar but inferior, to marriage. The children were recognized as legal offspring but their inheritance were inferior to children of marriage often receiving a smaller inheritance. Often concubines bore heirs, when a wife was unable to produce sons.Western laws do not acknowledge the legal status of concubines or recognize only monogamous marriages as legal, leaving the woman a mistress without protection. Romans did not class same-sex relationships as homosexual and a concubinus was a young male slave chosen by his master as a sexual partner.
Chinese Emperors sometimes kept thousands of concubines and in ancient China, successful men often supported several concubines and their families. Concubines on a few occasions were buried alive with their master to keep him company in the afterlife. Concubines sometimes achieved much power and influence. In the 'Four Great Classical Novels of China' there is the story of 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' believed to be a semi-autobiographical account of author Cao Xueqin's own family life where three generations of the Jia family are supported by the favorite concubine of the Emperor. Imperial concubines kept in the Forbidden City, were always guarded by castrated eunuchs, to make sure they could not be impregnated by anyone, other than the Emperor. Dowager Empress Cixi who liked her opium, was perhaps the most successful concubine in China’s history. Cixi gave birth to the only surviving son, who became the Emperor Tongzhi. She eventually became de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years after her son's death.
In the Mao era, the whiff of an affair could get someone fired from their job, demoted or sent to self-criticism sessions and even jail. In the Cultural Revolution, extramarital affairs were condemned, labeled as Male-Female-Relationship Lifestyle. One of the most popular videos on the Internet was a clip from an Olympics promotion event, rebrand the CCTV sports channel as the “Olympics Channel.” In the video, the wife of a popular anchor crashes the event, grabs the microphone and accuses the anchor of sleeping with another woman. Polygamy is still around among upper class members of some minorities. Polyandry exists among Tibetans, Naxi and Pumi minorities. Modern marriage procedure have led to a rise in bigamy. In the old days wealthy Chinese men, married three or four women at the same time. The wives sharing different duties and responsibilities, raising the children.The first wife usually had the right to order secondary wives around and her children given precedence.
In consumerist China today sex, corruption and money are often intertwined in people's consciousness. Money scandals have a sexual element with Chinese expression saying: "Where there is corruption, there’s sex. And where there’s sex, there’s corruption. A wife dumped for a mistress says, ”Mistresses are always lurking in shadows of corruption cases. If you don’t have money, you can’t hold on to your mistress.” In Shenzhen there are "concubine villages," where thousands of young women live in luxury apartments, paid by their lovers, close enough to the border that the men can take off early from work, visit their lovers and be backhome in time for dinner with their wives.
Zhang Yu Fen a wife dumped by her husband for a mistress organized a “guerilla squad for attacking mistresses” made up of dumped wives.“Unless mistresses are completely wiped out, we won’t be able to achieve a harmonious society and will only be left with the menace” mistresses present, Zhang says, “We, the socially vulnerable, have to get together to eradicate the existence of mistresses. Our organization’s aim is to punish these husbands and claim the assets we are entitled to.” The local media call them the “mistress killers,”because they have assaulted some mistresses.
There are many credible stories in Ireland of asylums being places for specially trained concubines. The asylums it is believed, trained young Irish girls in speciality skills, while sometimes later selling them off to rich men in England. There are such stories going way back to one of the beheaded wives of the King of England a certain Ann Boylan from east Galway whose name was changed to Ann Boleyn to hide her true identity. In the Victorian asylums built by the English in Ireland, girls were sold into Victorian slavery to be intensely trained as sexual slaves in some instances, with a specialty skill for purposes as a uniquely talented concubine. They probably still exist, perhaps more consenting now, trained in erotic and creative arts, often with some religious element involved. There are also many stories in Ireland of young nuns being individually trained by mentors to later satisfy some reverend Mother, parish Priest or Bishops in orgies conducted in the convents scattered around Ireland.
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