Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities August 2017

opium-pipe-full-iii-e1505565781228.jpgCuriosity: Opium pipe

Country of origin: China

Maker: Unknown

Created: 19th century (?)

Measurements: 558mm

Material: Bamboo and metal (possibly tin or brass)



“That drug is the invention of the devil. It’s ruined more lives, wasted more fortunes, and poisoned more bodies even than alcohol.” Philip Pullman The Ruby in the Smoke

Opium! Is there any other drug that is more steeped in mystery? Even nowadays a certain fashion designer still deems it enticing to name his perfume ‘Opium’. Bizarre, don’t you think? Especially when you read the above quote from Philip Pullman’s book in which the drug happens to play a crucial part.

Poppy seeds

Opium, produced from the poppy seed, was already known as a herbal remedy against all sorts of illnesses and complaints such as coughs, asthma, diarrhoea and sunstroke during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). Some connoisseurs would also grow poppies in their gardens for the sake of their beauty. However, by the late 16th century (Ming dynasty, 1368-1644) the royal court had also discovered its aphrodisiac qualities. Over time, women and opium would become inseparable for many men; a prostitute, for example, who mastered the art of preparing an opium pipe, could demand higher rates. There are examples of how pipes are prepared in Zheng Yangwen’s book The Social Life of Opium in China.

Map of China (Wikipedia)

Opium was mainly imported into China via the Silk Road or paid as tributes from associated countries. The Dutch East India Company began trading the drug with China in the 17th century before the British East India gradually took over the monopoly, after fierce competition, in the 18th century. Very little was grown in China for consumption at that time.

The Chinese cultivated the smoking, or rather inhaling, of opium. In other countries, such as India, opium was usually eaten. Tobacco smoking had been introduced to China earlier in the 16th century and had spread rapidly through all classes. However, opium was chiefly the prerogative of the wealthy, leisured and educated classes; the aristocracy, the literati and the upper spheres of officialdom would indulge in the habit recreationally. Being under the influence of the drug was a sensuous experience and inspired many poets and writers.

In 1729 (Qing dynasty, 1644-1912), the emperor became so concerned about the amount of opium consumed that he forbade the sale of opium unless it was for medical purposes. In 1800 its cultivation and import was banned by imperial decree. This did not prevent the influx of the drug into the country. Regardless of the prohibition, the British East India Company carried on smuggling shiploads of opium into Canton (now Guangdong), South China, from where it was distributed further inland by native traders. The British were keen on Chinese tea, which they received in return for the drug, which they imported mainly from their huge poppy plantations in Bengal, India. Opium had grown into a ‘multi-million dollar business’, and the Western powers were not deterred that easily.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Cultivation of poppies began in China in the first half of the 19th century and the drug became available to the lower spheres of the social hierarchy. This and the huge amounts illegally entering the country made opium more affordable. When the Daoguang Emperor ordered the destruction of 20,000 chests of opium in Canton in 1839, the British demanded compensation for their loss. This event triggered the First Opium War (1839-1842). The Chinese lost and had to open five treaty ports in which the British were free to trade, among them Hong Kong, Shanghai and Canton (Treaty of Nanking). However, the situation was not completely solved. The Second Opium War (1856-1860), in which the British joined forces with the French, eventually led to the legalisation of opium, the opening of more treaty ports and a British diplomatic representation in Peking (Treaty of Tientsin, 1858).

Thus smoking opium became omnipresent during the 2nd half of the 19th century. It was considered polite to offer your guests a pipe as part of the after-dinner entertainment, and labourers would often smoke it to keep hunger at bay and to relax their muscles after a hard day’s work. However, as Yangwen explains: “Lower-class smokers made opium-smoking visible and disgraceful as a social and moral problem. They degraded opium-smoking and irritated their upper-class counterparts.” Missionaries and other visitors to the country also became worried about the consequences of the massive consumption of opium in China. They started questioning the morality of the trade with the drug. Unsettled by horror stories about the physical and moral decline of the Chinese population, especially the evangelicals and the Quakers demanded an inquest. China was dubbed ‘the sick man of Asia’. Understandably, the British government was reluctant as so much revenue depended on the opium business.

Finally, in 1893, Parliament approved the appointment of a Royal Commission on Opium. Its main purpose was to decide whether the export of opium from India to China should be stopped and whether even the cultivation of poppies and the usage of the drug in India should be forbidden. The outcome of the investigation was presented in 1895; it was declared that the situation had been exaggerated. The report argued, for example, that the Chinese had started growing poppies on a large scale as well, so an embargo on the trade would not make a great difference. John F. Richards has written an extensive article on the Royal Commission of 1895; you can find details in ‘Sources’ below. Suffice to say that the widely spread use of opium was not stamped out in China until the Communists came into power in 1949.

It should maybe be added that not all opium smokers turned into those emaciated figures that you can see on many 19th century images. Many used the drug to relax and in moderation, just as people in the Western world might sit back with a glass of wine or beer in the evening after work. Zhen Yangwen thinks that opium smoking became so popular in China as a recreation, because it did not make people “a nuisance” like alcohol might; this worked well with the traditional Chinese cultural constraints. Yangwen also suggests that opium smoking appealed to the Chinese because its preparation had a similar ritualistic aspect as their cooking or tea-making traditions.

There was also a growing fascination with yanghuo, ‘foreign stuff’, that reached its height in the 19th century. Opium belonged into that category. Just as tea sets, valuable opium pipes and paraphernalia (see photos) became sought-after collectibles and were a way to show off your refined tastes and wealth. Pipes were mainly made from bamboo (other materials included ivory and porcelain) and, just as the accessories, would often be decorated with gold, silver, precious stones or mother of pearl. The favoured mottled bamboo came from the Hunan Province in southern China, which became one of the biggest opium-pipe producing areas in the country. Pipes and accessories such as lamps were also manufactured on a large scale in Taigu in the Shanxi Province further North.

(Click on images to enlarge them.)

In Great Britain, a great range of remedies containing opium was freely available during the first half of the 19th century; Godfrey’s Cordial, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Infants all included the drug. No consideration was given to the possible side effects of opium. Laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium, was widely available and used against complaints such as depression, fatigue or insanity. The idea that it could be addictive had not quite caught on yet; any withdrawal symptoms after stopping to take the medicine were simply seen as the start of a new complaint – so more opium-based medication was administered. Only the Pharmacy Act of 1868 finally restricted the sale of opium and other ‘poisons’ to licensed pharmacists and chemists.

Opium was chiefly imported into Britain from Turkey, and there was a certain fascination with all things ‘Oriental’ and Chinoiserie (including opium) during the 18th and 19th century; this was furthered with publications such as Kubla Khan in 1816 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1835), Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) and The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889); incidentally, each of these writers happened to be dependant on opium. However, the much famed opium dens of East London, mentioned for example in the Sherlock Holmes story The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), were rather less numerous than you might assume (probably no more than half a dozen, according to Barry Milligan) and mostly frequented by foreign immigrants or sailors.

The above is basically the history of opium in China and Great Britain up until and including the 19th century in a nutshell. I do hope that I got all the details right, as I am by no means an expert on the subject, which, as I mentioned before, is vast. The publications mentioned below will give a plethora of information to those of you who would like to find out more.

label translated IIThere is unfortunately nothing much to say about our opium pipe itself. I could not find out whether it might have belonged, for example, to George Powell of Nanteos or if Sidney Kyffin Greenslade (1866-1955) bought it together with other objects in 1925 to enhance the ethnographic collection. Greenslade was an architect and had been appointed ‘Consulting Curator’ for the university’s Arts and Crafts Museum in 1918. The carved ‘nut’, might actually be a peach kernel, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The metal part onto which the pipe-bowl is fitted is called a ‘saddle’. I have included a photo on which you can see a translation of its Chinese label. According to the lovely lady who provided me with the translation, it is transitional Chinese of the late 19th century, so it is quite difficult to deduce the exact meaning.

I have to admit that on my quest of researching this month’s curiosity, I had the feeling I was falling into a bottomless hole. There is such a huge amount of articles, academic books, novels, etc. that deals with the topic that it was easy to get ever so slightly overwhelmed. It certainly taught me a lesson: “Never think you can just ‘quickly’ research an object!”

(Click on the images to enlarge them.)


Belchem, John, editor, et al. The Penguin Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century History. Penguin Books, 1996.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Wordsworth Classics. 1999.

de Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Oxford UP, 2008.

Lovell, Julia. The Opium War. Picador, 2011.

Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth Century British Culture. UP of Virginia, 1995.

Newman, R. K. “Opium Smoking in Late Imperial China: A Reconsideration.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 765-794. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/312804. Accessed 25 Jul. 2017.

Pullman, Philip. The Ruby in the Smoke. Scholastic, 1985.

Richards, John F. “Opium and the British Indian Empire: The Royal Commission of 1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, pp. 375-420. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3876660. Accessed 25 Jul. 2017.

Zheng, Yangwen. “The Social Life of Opium in China, 1483-1999.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1-39. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3876550. Accessed 20 Jun. 2017.

—.The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge UP, 2005.






How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me Into an Opium Addict



http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm#6 (for Sherlock Holmes’s The Man with the Twisted Lip)

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