Sun, Dec 12, 2004 - Page 19 News List

A war on drugs or a war on tradition?

`Narcotic Culture' by Frank Dikotter takes a fresh look at the usual take on history that suggests the use of opium by the Chinese was entirely negative

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Title: Narcotic Culture

By Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun Hurst
319 pages
[Hardback, UK]

Opium has always been associated, for better or worse, with China. And almost invariably it's been for the worse. The myth, in both the Christian West and the communist East, has been that this pernicious substance was brought to the Celestial Empire by the perfidious British, forced onto a gullible people, and as a result accelerated the decline of a once-great nation.

This is simply untrue, says Frank Dikotter (supported by his two research assistants) in his controversial new book Narcotic Culture. Opium was consumed at all levels of Chinese society, he argues, both as a highly effective medication and for relaxation and civilized pleasure. The British certainly cornered the trade of importing opium into China in the early 19th century, but they were in no sense imposing a substance they knew to be harmful on a passive market. Not only was opium already well-known and well-loved in China, it was also used throughout Europe in a far stronger form and without any legal controls, as a cure-all and the only reliable pain killer available.

If opium was so harmful to the Chinese, Dikotter asks, why was it so harmless when administered to the English? The reality was, he claims, that towards the end of the Victorian era a movement arose among evangelical Christians in the UK urging the abolition of the opium trade in Asia. The campaign was strongly resisted by the government in London. Eventually,however, its force became overwhelming, so that wherever the Communists extended their control in China they pointed to opium-use and prostitution (another subject for Dikotter, you feel) as the two most evil products of capitalism in its vicious colonial form. A policy of mass executions quickly put a stop to both products. A hostile view of opium had meanwhile come to prevail almost world-wide. (Even so, Hong Kong didn't prohibit its use until 1945, and there were flourishing opium houses in Southeast Asia well into the 1950s.)

This is a brave and powerful book, not least because it questions readings of China's history that up to now have gained almost universal acceptance: The opium trade was a crime as great as slavery, the present trade in cigarettes (typically by American companies operating in Asia) is "a modern opium trade," opium symbolizes every kind of exploitation of poor nations by richer ones. How often have such scenarios been given unquestionable authority?

They're all wrong, says Dikotter. Opium was almost invariably smoked in moderation, and the "opium den" of legend was in reality a neat and well-ordered house offering tea, fine food and a refined and congenial atmosphere. What came in the wake of prohibition when it finally arrived were genuinely harmful intoxicants: heroin, morphine, hard liquor and tobacco.

Defenses of narcotic cultures are not new, but they've typically come from the mouths of enthusiastic users urging their pleasures on the rest of us. Frank Dikotter is not of this company. Instead, he's Professor of the Modern History of China at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and is a widely admired historian. His special area is China during its Republican era (1911 to 1949), and he's the author of celebrated books on concepts of race, sexual attitudes and the pursuit of eugenics, all in China, plus China's prison system during the Republican period (where he was the first Western researcher to get into selected archives, or indeed to find they were open at all).

This story has been viewed 4031 times.
TOP top