Shanghai Reflections, Part One: Talking Across Substances

Editor’s Note: This week, I’ll be offering up some reflections on the recently-concluded conference, “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History,” which was held at the Shanghai University on June 22 and 23, 2012.  The conference itself was organized by Drs. Yong-an Zhang, James H. Mills, and myself (Joe Spillane).  The sponsoring organizations included James Mills’ University of Strathclyde, the Wellcome Trust, the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University (headed by Yong-an Zhang), and the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.  As the current President of the latter organization, I was very pleased to assist with the meeting, and to help welcome attendees.  The late Professor Musto would have been very gratified, I think, to have seen this gathering of younger and more senior scholars–together, they provided ample evidence of the maturation of the field of drugs and alcohol history.  Our hope in organizing this meeting was to showcase the “new perspectives” promised in the conference title, and to develop conversations across the boundaries of nation, substance, discipline, and method.  In this week’s posts, I’ll step back and offer some preliminary thoughts on those conversations.

Before I begin, a brief bit of news for Points readers: this month, I’m stepping down as one of the Managing Editors’ for the Points blog.  It has been two years since Trysh Travis and I began preparing to launch this new enterprise, and about eighteen months since our first post.  Since then, we have published over 350 more posts, and attracted a modestly sizable readership.  Most of this success is courtesy of the indefatigable Trysh Travis, with whom it has been an absolute pleasure to work.  I will remain a fully engaged consumer of this blog’s content, and an occasional contributor as well, and look forward to seeing what new surprises Points has in store during the years to come.  Now, back to Shanghai…

Conference banner
Advertising drugs, drink, and discussion

Conference themes are a curious thing.  In theory, they promise a great deal, but all too often end up being nibbled at around the edges over the course of a meeting.  Broad enough to sound exciting, themes are generally also capacious enough to include a lot of conversations that happen simultaneously but largely separately.  The idea of talking about “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History” provides us with just this sort theme–just coherent enough to tantalize the participant with the possibilities for engaging academic interactions, just big enough to make one worry that too much was going on.

Let’s begin, today, with the first three words of the conference title: drugs and drink.  As regular readers of the Points blog are well aware, we here are in the business of talking about drugs and drink both, as is the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (a sponsor of this blog and the Shanghai conference).  But talking across substances is challenging, and never more so than when we try and bridge the drugs and alcohol divide.  And so it was with some disappointment that Yong-an, James, and I realized, some time after the call for paper proposals, that our meeting would be well short of alcohol-specific papers (see the list of papers here).  Indeed, the meeting featured only one: Aurea Toxqui’s absolutely fascinating look at the cultural exchange of alcohol between Asia and Mexico over a broad sweep of time (1565-1815).  Prof. Toxqui’s work on alcohol is part of some exciting new

Conference Panel
Aurea Toxqui makes the case for alcohol

work on gender and drinking cultures, alongside Points guest-blogger Gretchen Pierce (whose work was featured here, here, and here), and Gina Hames.  Did we fall short?  In two ways, perhaps.  Obviously, more papers on alcohol’s Asian and transnational history would have been most welcome.  But the more interesting manner in which we probably fell short has to do with the number of times alcohol popped up in the background of “drug” papers, but without sufficient time or attention paid to developing its significance.  Nearing the end of day one, I scribbled this note to myself: “throughout, there are interesting points of relation to alcohol in our discussions of opium–we could use more fully integrated models of use and control.”  It wasn’t that we ignored alcohol entirely, but that we relegated it to the background of our papers, even as its obvious significance kept intruding (ever so briefly) into the conference presentations.

Among the interesting, though underdeveloped connections, three stand out.  First, the connections between consumption patterns of alcohol and of other psychoactive substances.  How and why did patterns of use vary between substances?  Can these differences across time and place help us develop broader models of consumption, as well as public response to that consumption?  Some papers that touched on this in promising ways, I would include Felicia Yap’s “Opium and British Imperial Networks in Malaya and Singapore During the Early Twentieth Century,” and Norman Smith’s “Suffering Addictions, Suffering Cures: The Anti-Opiate Movement in Manchukuo.”  A second issue has to do with comparing commercial behavior and state policy across substances, and here one might point to papers such as Saeyoung Park’s “Contradictions in the State Monopoly of Opium and Tobacco in Colonial Korea” as a promising start.  Finally, there is the question of defining addiction and practicing treatment–unfortunately the least developed of the potential cross-substance conversations at our meeting (though Smith’s paper offered perhaps the meeting’s most sophisticated evaluation of relationship between treatment provision, users, and the state).  In the end, I’m inclined to agree with the opening line of Sandeep Sinha’s paper (“Health and Destruction: Two Disparate Facets of Cannabis and Opium in India Through the Ages”): “Addiction, like imperialism, is quite a subtle and complex issue particularly when the state is involved.”

Speaking of imperialism, part two of my reflections will consider the place of imperialism as we attempted to talk across levels of analysis.  Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Shanghai Reflections, Part One: Talking Across Substances

  1. Although there may be the idea that alcohol is a dull research topic as compared with illicit drugs, alcohol in Asia presents all sorts of fascinating questions to pursue. For instance, I recently read (in GLOBE, I think) that in China middle aged and older men are the principal binge drinkers and not young people as is typical in the West.

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