U.S. Clipper Ship in the China Trade. Oil painting by an anonymous Chinese painter, in the Western style, nineteenth century. Ships like these were common in the China Seas during peak opium-trading years.
Before the seventeenth century opium was used in China primarily for medicinal purposes. As the practice of smoking opium prevailed in China from the 1820s onward to the 1870s and the turn of the twentieth century—a time fraught by increasingly contentious issues regarding opium trade—opium’s addictive properties became more apparent. China was faced with a dilemma: whether to benefit from the revenue of opium trade or outlaw its use.
China’s opium trade is said to have been started by Arabian merchants in the seventh century during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). But the research of the Japanese scholar Yano Jin’ichi indicates that what China began to use during the Tang period was an opium-containing medicine, and that Chinese people did not know of or, as some opium historians have said, produce opium itself—the raw substance that’s derived from collecting the milky juice found in the unripe seed capsules of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), which becomes a brownish sticky gum when exposed to the air—until the sixteenth century.
Since the Tang period and into the Song dynasty (907–1279) a medicine produced by grinding, frying, and boiling opium poppy seeds and their dried cases had been used to treat bone ailments, kidney stones, stomach diseases, and respiratory ailments. Neither poppy seeds nor their dried cases are considered to be “real” opium. Moreover, the medicine made after grinding, frying, and boiling them was ingested, not smoked.
Opium (in its raw form) for medicinal purposes came to China around 1500, either from Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia as tribute (payment of respect to China) or from central Asia by Arab traders. As some Chinese doctors said in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, opium had a curative effect for colds, diarrhea, anal prolapse, weak pulse, infected sores, and dysentery, among other supposed uses.
Opium Imports Intensify
From the seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century the Portuguese were the most habitual importers of the opium from India. In 1757 English merchants began to sell Indian opium to China. In 1773 the British East India Company, reaping further the benefits of India’s colonization, exerted influence on the trade, levying a tax on merchants. Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia played important roles in forwarding Indian opium to China’s various coastal harbors other than Canton (Guangzhou), which was the only port the British merchants could enter.
From the evidence available Chinese did not begin to use opium for smoking until 1710, when opium was first smoked by mixing it with tobacco, and after the 1770s pure opium was smoked using a pipe. Opium smoking was at first limited to Fujian and Guangdong, and it did not spread nationwide until around 1820.
After the practice of opium smoking expanded in China during the eighteenth century, opium imports gradually increased. According to the British East India Company’s records, in 1767 imports were more than 1,000 chests (a chest is a little heavier than 1 picul, which is 133.33 pounds), in 1790 more than 4,000 chests, in 1824 more than 10,000 chests, in 1832 more than 20,000 chests, in 1835 more than 30,000 chests, and in 1838 more than 40,000 chests. Because opium imports suddenly increased markedly during the 1830s, and the Chinese government could not thoroughly implement its opium prohibition policy, the First Opium War, which was the first military defeat of China by Western powers in the modern period, broke out in September 1839.
The war did not end until July 1842; China was defeated. Opium imports. considered illegal, flourished nevertheless in plain site of the Qing court. In the twenty years after the First Opium War opium imports increased from their level of 40,000 piculs prior to the war to 75,000 piculs by 1859, according to Chinese maritime custom data. By that time the Second Opium War (1856–1860) was underway in China, with France, as well as Britain, in the fray. When the war ended, again with China in defeat, opium imports were legalized.
In the thirty-six years from 1858 to 1894, except for six years during which opium imports exceeded 75,000 piculs, imports fluctuated between 55,000 piculs and 75,000 piculs. During the few years when imports exceeded 75,000 piculs, they were at most 83,000 piculs. In the eleven years from 1895 to 1906—except for 1899 and 1903, when imports were 59,000 piculs and 58,000 piculs, respectively—opium imports always remained less than 55,000 piculs. The lowest was 49,000 piculs in 1909, and in 1906 imports were 54,000 piculs. Because of the decrease in foreign opium imports since 1895, Britain’s profits from the opium trade were slim, and in 1907 the Sino-British Opium Prohibition Regulations were signed, which decreased British opium imports 5,100 chests each year until imports were eliminated in 1918.
Opium Production in China
China did not possess knowledge of how to produce opium until around 1500, approximately three thousand years after opium’s first appearance in western Asia. Although there are records of opium production in Yunnan and Gansu in western China during the eighteenth century, no evidence exists that it was much produced or used for smoking. Not until 1820 did records show that the production of opium for smoking gradually began to increase. To this day historians cite Commissioner Lin Zexu’s 1838 warning that opium use would deprive China of soldiers strong enough to resist a hostile army. Nonetheless, in 1833 Lin was the first Chinese official to suggest that the production of native opium be considered to ease the drain of silver from China—a deficit in the international balance of payment—caused by China’s spending more on opium imports that it brought in by selling silk and tea.
Although China increased opium production in the 1820s, not until late 1870 did surpass foreign opium imports. The production of native opium increased fivefold between the late 1870s and 1906, when total production of native opium was nine times greater than imports. The main opium-producing areas continued to be in peripheral China. Provinces in the southwest, including Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou, produced about 60 percent of the total opium output. Provinces in the northwest, including Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu, produced about 20 percent of the total opium output. The peripheral regions of the littoral provinces (located on a shore, especially of the sea) produced the remaining 20 percent. Before 1869 Yunnan was the most important opium-producing province. Thereafter Sichuan took its place.
In addition to native opium’s geographic and climatic suitability (and the fact that little land and labor were needed in peripheral China to produce it), the high price of native opium, caused in part by the Indian opium monopoly, was sufficient to cover the transportation costs between the inland and the coastal provinces. The import of Indian cotton made southern China rely less on cotton of northern China and southwest China, which resulted in increased opium production in these areas. Some evidence shows that half of all native opium was produced for the long-distance domestic trade and that the value of this opium constituted as much as one-sixth of the value of all of China’s interregional trade.
Although it had been long thought that foreign opium had not been sold beyond the Yangzi River before the First Opium War, the scholars H. B. Morse and John K. Fairbank, by “reconstructing” (from Qing palace archives) the pre-1839 distribution route of imported opium, determined that imported opium was distributed all over China. Soldiers, officials, large merchants, and small peddlers brought it inland.
After the Opium Wars China’s main entrepot (an intermediary center of trade and transshipment) for distributing foreign opium shifted from Guangzhou to Shanghai. When native opium swiftly increased in the 1870s, the sphere of distribution for foreign opium was more and more reduced to the coastal area between Jiangsu and Guangdong. Like the market of imported opium before the 1870s, that of native opium after the 1870s was all over China.
Records of the International Opium Commission of 1908 and of opium use of other countries in the late nineteenth century indicate that the 630,000 piculs of opium used by China in 1908 represented 95 percent of the total amount of opium used in the world that year. The per-capita amount of opium used in China was fifteen times of that of England, twenty times that of the United States, and fifty times of that of India. Southeast Asia, in total, used 20,000 piculs of opium at most. Except for the small island of Singapore, the figures for per-capita opium consumption in most of the countries in this area were lower than that of China. Out of the total population, 1.64 percent of opium users were American and 4.5 percent were from China. Among opium-producing countries, the percentage of domestic users was 25 percent for Persia (modern-day Iran), 8 percent for India, 1 percent for Turkey, and 99 percent for China.
Health Issues vs. Policies
Even though Chinese doctors had warned against opium overdose since the seventeenth century, they did not have much influence on Chinese policymakers. The Chinese view of opium as an addictive drug has actually been greatly affected by new medical views of opium in the West. Prohibitive views spread in Britain, especially after 1874, but Britain officially prohibited opium use only in 1916. The view of opium in other Western countries followed a roughly similar pattern.
In contrast to earlier Chinese discourse about native opium production between 1833 and 1874, which did not pay much attention to opium’s effects on health, the post-1874 Qing discourse by both proponents and opponents of native opium conveyed a deep concern for “national health.” Paradoxically, from 1874 to 1905, when opium was blamed for degrading social morale and when Chinese nationalism was rising, opponents of native opium lost the upper hand. “To seek final prohibition through commanding the supply” was the Qing government’s rationale. Intellectuals such as Zheng Guanying, Wang Tao, and Sun Yat-sen all favored domestic cultivation. The worsening of the economy and a shortage of state revenues somewhat explain this paradox.
Furthermore, in contrast to Christian physicians who introduced the dangers of opium addiction to China around 1874, China-based Western doctors working for the Chinese maritime customs were slow to reflect this disapproval of opium. Not until the end of the nineteenth century did their view evolve from opium as a curative to opium as a “poison.” The Imperial Maritime Customs publications were another Western media that influenced late Qing thinking.
By 1905, in addition to the victory of non-opium-smoking Japan over Russia and the prevalence of the view of opium as a poison in the Western world, many changes had taken place. Native opium was out-competing foreign opium. Opium imports had ceased to be profitable. Importation of foreign goods other than opium was increasing; foreign businesses gradually found other sources of profit. These conditions spread prohibition attitudes across the country and paved the way for the successful prohibition movement from 1906 to 1916.
However, the opium-abolition movement was relaxed in 1916 as China entered the Republican period (1912–1949). During the entire Republican period tensions over the production, sale, and use of opium were even keener than they had been during the nineteenth century. On the one hand, economic considerations encouraged some permissiveness toward opium growing and trading. On the other hand, concern was increasing that opium use harmed national health. Particularly during the Republican period, opium use was somewhat different from that during Qing times. In many villages in north China opium had been taken by pills or by injection. While opium-suppression bureaus of various political regimes in Republican China continued to function, the fiscal benefits of supplying opium was hard to ignore: The Japanese empire sold opium from Mongolia, Taiwan, Korea, and Osaka to coastal China and Manchukuo during the Sino-Japanese War.
The data for the sources of opium supply during the Republican period were scanty. The highest estimate of annual production was 400,000 piculs—less than the 580,000 piculs of 1906 when the Qing dynasty reached its climax. According to John Lossing Buck’s survey of thirteen areas of fifteen provinces, opium poppy fields were 14 percent of total agricultural land in 1904–1909, 3 percent in 1914–1919, 11 percent in 1924–1929, and 20 percent in 1929–1933. Although the survey did not represent the entire country or the entire period, it reveals more fluctuation in opium production during the Republican period than the steady increase during the late Qing period.
In Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, a policy of gradual abolition was adopted. This policy was adopted by China between 1906 and 1916. From 1896 onward the Japanese colonial government had set up factories to refine opium purchased from India and Persia into opium paste to sell to licensed smokers. The amount of opium used in 1899 was 229,864 kilograms and was gradually reduced to 3,667 kilograms in 1944. The number of licensed smokers was 52,063 in 1919 and 2,778 in 1942. In contrast, on the Chinese mainland, the People’s Republic of China resorted to drastic measures from 1949 to 1952 to eliminate the opium business by condemning it through mass propaganda as counterrevolutionary and subject to severe punishment.
While the use of other illegal substances has increased to some extent in both Taiwan and China in recent years, from the scale of its use and its effects is far less that of opium in the past.
Lin, Man-houng. (1985). Qingmo shehui liuxing xishi yapian yanjiu—gongji mian zhi fenxi, 1773–1906. [A supply-side analysis of the prevalence of opium-smoking in late Qing China, 1773–1906]. Doctoral dissertation, Graduate Institute of History, National Taiwan Normal University.
Lin, Man-houng. (2005). China’s ‘dual economy’ in international trade relations, 1842–1949. In K. Sugihara (Ed.), Japan, China, and the growth of the Asian international economy, 1850–1949 (pp. 180–197). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Source: Lin, Man-houng. (2009). Opium Trade. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1662–1666. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Workers gathering seeds pods from opium poppies, c. 1900–1910. Opium sold in China was grown in Egypt (which was still under British influence at the time) and exported to China. G. ERIC AND EDITH MATSON PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION.
Canton Harbor, oil painting by an anonymous Chinese painter, nineteenth century. This scene, painted in 1840, shows a British side-wheeler arriving in Guangzhou (Canton). Prior to the First Opium War (1839–1842), merchants from the West were not permitted to trade outside of the city.