Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places.Read More »

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Of Ragamuffins and Dens: State Legislation, Municipal Enforcement, and Opium Smoking

On May 26, 1888, the Boston Daily Globe reported the death of a young Harvard student named Frank Mills. The front page headline read: “Fatal Opium.” According to the story, having decided that life at Harvard would not be complete without the experience, Mills and three fellow students had ventured into Boston with the hopes of securing some opium. Following suggestions from their classmates the foursome sought out a man known as Nicholas Gentleman who sold opium in the South End. The boys had “refused to go to an opium joint,” as they feared a police raid, but told Gentleman if he would come to Harvard they would “make things all right for him.” He readily agreed after several assurances that Mills was “an old hand at smoking.” That evening Mills continued to claim he was a frequent smoker leading Gentleman to oblige his numerous requests for another pipe. Mills and the others soon became ill and by early morning the group suffered in obvious agony. Medical doctors were summoned, yet the group took great care to keep the opium smoking quiet. In the end, all but Mills recovered, their secret was revealed, and Gentleman arrested. Read More »

The Book of Smoke

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for producing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

The opium dens prevalent in France and the United States during the 19th century, as well as the culture surrounding them, resulted in copious literature, such as this rarely-seen work: Le livre de la fumée, by French author, musicologist, and student of Chinese culture Louis Laloy. This treatise on opium’s use and history both domestically and in China features a preface by Claude Farrère, author of the novel Fumée d’opium. It was published in 1915 by Dorbon-Ainé in a lavish limited edition of 220 numbered copies with illustrations throughout.

Fumee-1-largeThe Santo Domingo Collection includes several of the 220 copies; the one shown here is bound in full tan morocco with gilt stamping and embroidered cloth endsheets by the French bindery Marius Michel. The binding preserves the publisher’s original wrappers, themselves sumptuously illustrated in color.

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Conference Report: Law and Society Association Annual Meeting

The 2013 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting (May 30-June 2) in Boston concluded yesterday. As an interdisciplinary conference of considerable size (over 600 panels) that attracts a diverse range of policy, academic, practitioner panelists and attendees, this annual meeting seems to offer rich opportunities to venture outside of one’s narrow subfield and to have unexpected yet fruitful conversations.

ImageGiven the overlapping interests of those who work on law and psychoactive substances, this conference may be a future forum of interest for ADHS readers.  The conference has been extant for several decades, deriving its institutional origins from the founding of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in 1964. This year’s theme was “Power, Privilege, and the Pursuit of Justice: Legal Challenges in Precarious Times.”Read More »

Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

Many scholars of drugs and alcohol that are engaged in comparative work within plural linguistic environments are already aware of the problems of translation. The encounter with compilations of mistranslated signs and slogans that many of us may have had in our first language courses have constituted some of our earliest brushes with the pitfalls of translation. (E.g.: Bangkok Dry Cleaner’s sign: “Drop your trousers here for best results” or an earlier version of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan—“Eat your fingers off” 吃掉你的手指头.[1]) Translation, it seems, can be dangerous.

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Identified as in Shanghai, but likely a sign for Beijing’s Ethnic Culture Park.

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Shanghai Reflections: A Final Postcard

Editor’s Note: As a final word, here are a few thoughts from Diana L. Ahmad of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and a participant at the conference.  Thanks to Diana for taking a moment to prepare these thoughts.

 In late June, over forty scholars from four continents and eight countries gathered at Shanghai University for a conference devoted to drugs and drink in Asia.  The presenters ranged from graduate students to well-published scholars in the field.

The historic efforts to control the use and spread of opium dominated the topics.  The papers clearly demonstrated that opium impacted more than India, China, or the United States, but indeed, included much of Asia and Europe.  In the Dutch East Indies, for example, the Dutch imperialist government went so far as to exclude the Chinese from selling opium, keeping the business and profits for themselves.  The impact of opium in the Golden Triangle through the years, as well as in Afghanistan, highlighted several of the papers.  The importance of nation-building in areas impacted by opium in the former colonies of the Dutch, British, and French demonstrated the significance the drug had on the politics of the region.  The influence of the drug in Japan and Korea also explained the economic, social, and political impact on those nations, even showing that the Japanese considered themselves superior to the Chinese because of the Chinese opium problems.

The efforts of governments around the world to control opium’s use and sale could be heard in nearly every paper.  Christian missionaries, for example, attempted to eliminate the substance from their areas of influence in Yunnan and Wenzhou, while journalists in the American West campaigned to abolish smoking-opium from their communities.  A significant number of the papers dealt with the impact of opium on the economies of nations.  The imperialist nations that held possessions in Asia had become, willingly or not, importers or exporters of the drug, as opium had become a world trade good in the nineteenth century.  Governments over time, such as Great Britain, China, and the Dutch East Indies, all claimed to dislike opium, but few of them denied that the money was desirable for their nations’ treasuries.  Some suggested opium sales allowed government taxes to be kept to a minimum, such as in Qing China.  Opium, then, produced benefits for nations, not just problems.

Although the conference covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion of modern China’s approach to opium, it would have been great to see a few more papers on other features of the drug.  For example, although the Golden Triangle was noted in several papers, a more thorough discussion of the importance of opium in that area during the conflicts of the twentieth century would have been a good addition.  Although the PRC’s approach to opium was briefly discussed, an analysis of Chairman Mao’s opium policy would have provided an added insight to the panels on modern China.  A few more papers about the social side of opium would have been good to show the impact of the drug on everyday life.  The conference leaned heavily on opium for its papers, although cocaine and marijuana were represented, as well as only one paper on alcohol.  A few more scholars of drink would have been great.

This well run conference provided wonderful accommodations at Shanghai University, terrific meals, and easy flowing conversation.  Student assistants helped conference attendees obtain Shanghai University t-shirts, brought us snacks, tea, and water, and served as phenomenal translators.  It was truly great fun to have a conference in Shanghai, made all the more exciting by the fact that the 1909 Opium Conference was held nearby.  Heartfelt thanks go to the directors of the event….Joseph Spillane from the University of Florida, Yong-an Zhang of Shanghai University and the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies, and James Mills from the University of Strathclyde.

Shanghai Reflections, Part Two: Talking Across Levels of Analysis

Editor’s Note: Today, the Points blog presents the second part of my (Joe Spillane) reflections on the recently-concluded meeting, “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History.”  Part one of these reflections considered the problem of talking across substances, while today’s comments consider the challenges posed by integrating levels of analysis.

We interrupted the first day of the conference to gather for a group photo near the meeting room where we had already completed the meeting’s first session.

Drugs and Drink in Asia Conference Participants

The session, which I chaired, was “Drugs and Empire”–and it highlighted some of the challenges in talked across levels of analysis at our conference.  Let’s begin with Zhiliang Su (Shanghai Normal University) and his paper, “Opium and the Progress of Asian History.”  Prof. Su offered something of a traditional narrative we would hear repeated several times at the meeting, one in which engagement with opium initiated a series of developments through which, “China lost both its sovereignty and conception and dignity and confidence” (from the translation by Pan Zhang, a Fudan University graduate student).  Opium, imposed on China by the British and later by the Japanese, is both the tool and symbol of imperial domination–the antithesis of personal and national sovereignty, with a decided focus on the latter.Read More »

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…

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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.Read More »

The Adventures of Tintin in the Opium Empire

Tintin in the Opium Empire

At a very early age we have been exposed to one of the most influential images of drug use in our culture. Reading as children the comic book The Blue Lotus, we see Tintin lying in an opium den in Shanghai (named The Blue Lotus) and pretending to smoke an opium pipe. To children the book is of course only a gripping and exotic adventure story. Opium dens have disappeared from our cities. But the image lasts, permanently fixing associations of passivity, otherness, and harmfulness with the smoking of opium.

High on Opium

The Blue Lotus shows that drugs are tools used by sinister dealers and foreign powers in their attempts to enslave free people. An image in a comic book that is so powerful that children and adults continue to read it up until the present day. In 1999 the readers of the French newspaper Le Monde elected The Blue Lotus the eighteenth best book of the twentieth century.

Of course there is much more to Tintin than the breath-taking adventure. Read More »

Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 2: Female Writers

Points is pleased to present the second installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens four-part series on women’s drug use in Victorian England today. Today, we learn about the (professed) drug use of Victorian-era women writers.

Thomas De Quincey: Bad Influence?

In her autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House, American social reformer Jane Addams recalled an episode from her teenage years in which she and her friends at Rockford Female Seminary, longing to have “any experience at all” amid their strictly monitored routines, experimented with opium. They did this in imitation of Thomas De Quincey, though their foray into drug culture turned out more comical and less extraordinary than they intended:

We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy. About four o’clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders, administered an emetic to each of the five aspirants for sympathetic understanding of all human experience, and sent us to our separate rooms with a stern command to appear at family worship after supper ‘whether we were able to or not.’ (46)

Jane Addams, sincerely flattering De Quincey

Imitating De Quincey was not uncommon in the nineteenth century; many young people read the Confessions and, inspired by the writer’s descriptions of strange dreams and experiences, decided to explore the effects of opium. Typically, drug experimentation is  assumed to be the prerogative of men, but Jane Addams’s account suggests that schoolgirls had as much interest as schoolboys in the curious incidents the legendary opium-eater describes. That the girls were too overexcited for the drug to work and that the experiment ends in a prim reprimand, a religious service, and an emetic to purge the “foreign substance” from the “innocent” girl’s bodies adds to the playful, irreverent tone of the girls’ rebellion—a tone many people today would likely find inappropriate in a story about teenage girls dabbling with an opiate.

In my last post, I pondered the proof (or lack thereof) of Queen Victoria’s drug use. In this post, I turn my attention to evidence that undoubtedly exists, bringing together several autobiographical writings by nineteenth-century women in order to explore how opiates may have allowed them to pursue nontraditional activities as artists. Female writers’ diaries and poetry suggest that opiates might in some cases have helped them with their artistic ambitions, not necessarily in inspiring their work directly, but rather in helping maintain their health and motivation to write. Read More »