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Opium Culture

The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition

Published by Park Street Press
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

A detailed study of the history and usage of opium

• Explores the use of opium as a major healing herb and a popular relaxant

• Details the opium practices adhered to in the Chinese tradition

• Includes information on the suppression of opium by the modern pharmaceutical industry

Opium. The very sound of the word conjures images of secret rooms in exotic lands, where languid smokers lounge dreamily in a blue haze of fragrant poppy smoke, inhaling from long bamboo pipes held over the ruby flame of the jade lamp. Yet today very little accurate information is available regarding a substance that for 300 years was central to the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

In Opium Culture Peter Lee presents a fascinating narrative that covers every aspect of the art and craft of opium use. Starting with a concise account of opium’s long and colorful history and the story of how it came to be smoked for pleasure in China, Lee offers detailed descriptions of the growing and harvesting process; the exotic inventory of tools and paraphernalia required to smoke opium as the Chinese did; its transition from a major healing herb to a narcotic that has been suppressed by the modern pharmaceutical industry; its connections to the I Ching, Taoism, and Chinese medicine; and the art, culture, philosophy, pharmacology, and psychology of this longstanding Asian custom. Highlighted throughout with interesting quotes from literary and artistic figures who were opium smokers, such as Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Herman Melville, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the text is studded with gems of long forgotten opium arcana and dispels many of the persistent myths about opium and its users.



The Chinese call it da yen, “The Big Smoke.” Regarded by many as the ultimate luxury and by some as an indispensable necessity of daily life, opium historically was as common a commodity in China as alcohol and tobacco are in Europe and America today. The Chinese art of opium smoking, however, spread far beyond the borders of China and became deeply ingrained in the culture and social fabric of Southeast Asia and India, while also attracting a devoted cult of followers in Europe, particularly France, as well as America.

Writing in 1896, the American writer Stephen Crane reports:

Opium smoking in this country is believed to be more particularly a pastime of the Chinese, but in truth the greater number of smokers are white men and white women. Chinatown furnishes the pipe, lamp, and needle, but let a man once possess a layout, and the common American drugstore furnishes him with the opium, and afterward China is discernible only in the traditions and rituals that cling to the habit.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the “Big Smoke” penetrated America’s avant-garde art and music underworld, where opium smoking jazz musicians and blues singers coined the slang term “hip,” from which the words “hipster” and “hippy” were later derived, based on the position one adopts when smoking opium the Chinese way--lying down on one’s hip. Hence, the quip, “Are you hip?”

Today, the reasons for opium’s prohibition remain obscure and unexplained in the public mind. In a world where alcohol, which causes more damage to the user and more danger to society than any other drug on earth, and such highly addictive substances as tobacco and barbiturates are legally available to one and all, the medical and moral debates regarding the use of opium ring rather hollow. Remarking on the paternalistic and hypocritical attitudes that modern medical authorities express on the subject of opium, Thomas DeQuincey notes in The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:

Indeed the fascinating powers of opium are admitted, even by medical writers, who are its greatest enemies . . . Perhaps they think the subject of too delicate a nature to be made common; and as many people might then indiscriminately use it, it would take from the necessary fear and caution, which should prevent their experiencing the extensive power of this drug; for there are many properties in it, if universally known, that would habituate the use, and make it more in request with us than the Turks themselves.

The underlying assumption behind this parochial attitude is that people in Western societies, where personal liberty and freedom of choice are supposedly sacrosanct rights enshrined by law, are not mature enough to handle information about opium that Turks and Chinese have known for centuries, and that they are not qualified to make their own informed decisions regarding its use based simply on the facts. But there is also a more cynical reason for the deliberate suppression of information on opium in the Western world. Opium was ostensibly banned as a “dangerous drug” because of its addictive properties. Yet today, anyone can easily get a prescription from the family doctor for far more dangerous and addictive drugs, such as barbiturates and amphetamines, sleeping pills and antidepressants. So why are doctors not permitted to prescribe opium to those who prefer an herbal to a chemical remedy?

It’s a well-known fact of medical science that opium readily relieves such common conditions as insomnia and hypertension, depression and chronic pain, for relief of which so many millions of people today have become addicted to expensive tranquilizers, antidepressants, “painkillers,” and other patented pharmaceutical drugs. The more one investigates the truth about opium, the more one realizes that the real reason it has been prohibited is to protect the profits of the politically powerful pharmaceutical cartels, which have established a lucrative international monopoly in the vast markets for medical drugs throughout the world.

Be this as it may, the sole purpose of this book is to provide a frank and accurate account of the art and craft, the nature and the spirit, of the colorful custom of smoking opium for pleasure as it evolved in China and Southeast Asia from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, a custom that is still discretely practiced by informed connoisseurs in small private salons in various quiet corners of the world today.

Not so long ago, frankly informed material on sex was also regarded as a public taboo. But this is the age of information. I, therefore, present this information on opium so that readers may judge the legacy of Opium Culture on its own merits and weigh its pros and cons in their own minds.

About The Author

Peter Lee was born in Peking, China, in 1936. He studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the Sorbonne in Paris and has worked as a writer, translator, magazine editor, and professor. He now lives in retirement in Thailand.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Park Street Press (November 29, 2005)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620551165

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Raves and Reviews

"In this book, the timeless mysteries of opium, the nectar of the gods that has entranced alike the seekers, visionaries, and lost of the ages, are delved with an intimacy and depth of knowing as never before. This is, simply and superlatively, the best and most entrancing exploration into the fabulous, forbidden, and little-understood world of opium; simply and superlatively, the only book written from within that world, the only book about opium worth reading through which one truly may enter that world."

– Nick Tosches, author of Hellfire and Power on Earth

"Every aspect of opium is covered, from how it came to be smoked for pleasure in China to its connections to Taoism, Chinese medicine and traditional Asian custom. Add quotes and insights from literary and artistic figures and you have a text which is packed with sociological insights."

– Diane Donovan, California Bookwatch, May 2006

"Unique among books on the topic, [Opium Culture] takes a nativist view of the customs surrounding opium in China, dispersing the romance and propaganda that have clouded this most storied of vices. Opium is presented as herbal medicine whose alkaloids produce a hardy balance of effects that aren’t stuporous, but stimulating."

– Charles Hayes

"This book is among the best I have read on this powerful plant medicine that is so important in traditional and modern medicine. Any student, health professional, herbalist, ethnobotanist, lover of Chinese culture, or person interested in the history of medicine will want to own and read this book."

– Steven R. King, Ph.D., HerbalGram, No. 75

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