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

In all of these books he has, to some extent or other, upset the apple-cart. The Communists, for instance, have long claimed that Republican China was a mess, and one they subsequently cleaned up. Not so, Dikotter argued. There were many enlightened movements afoot, many attempts to modernize and rationalize, in China in the 1920s and 1930s. It was generally a civilized and enlightened time, and what came after was in almost every way a great deal worse.

Dikotter's analysis will be challenged, nonetheless. It wasn't, for instance, only evangelical Christians in the UK who thought opium was harmful to the Chinese. The government in Beijing thought so too, and from an earlier date, though they were always careful to make a distinction, as Dikotter tells us, between its use for medical purposes and its use -- characteristically when mixed with tobacco -- for pleasure. He also makes much of a distinction between drinking and smoking cultures (in other words West and East) that sounds rather generalized for a scholar who habitually rejects over-arching theories. The text is also quite short for its large subject matter (though there are 100 pages of notes and bibliography). But concision is appropriate to its nature: that of a clarion-call challenging scholars to a debate in an area where, up to now, there has effectively been none.

The wider implications of Dikotter's perspective are immense. The current "war on drugs," for example, attains an entirely new look. It's nothing more than the modern continuation, he argues, of a wrong-headed 19th century assault on the traditional and, in the main, harmless Asian use of narcotics (backed even then by evangelical Christians in the US with astute business motives behind their rhetoric).

Narcotic Culture, then, is a ground-breaking, and indeed astonishing, book. It may not represent a final analysis, but there is more than enough within its pages to support the author's belief, expressed elsewhere, that the best way to win the modern "war on drugs" may well be to stop fighting it forthwith.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top