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Opium Culture: The Art & Ritual of the Chinese Tradition

Opium Culture: The Art & Ritual of the Chinese Tradition by Peter Lee. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International/Park Street Press; 2006. Paperback; 232 pages. ISBN: 1-59477-075-1. $16.95. This delightful book was written by the Chinese scholar Peter Lee as a historical monograph. Both Mr. Lee’s grandfather and great-grandfather were opium smokers who lived beyond 90 years of age. The author points out in a note to the reader that the monograph was originally written in Chinese under the title “Da Yen: Jung Guo Ya Pien Yi yu Chiao Miao” (Opium: The Big Smoke, the Chinese Art and Craft of Opium) in 1996.

The book is presented in two sections with 16 pages of beautiful color photographs of many artifacts, tools, pipes, people, and plants. These images add an excellent depth and reality to this book, which is rich in detail and texture.

The first section, “Opium and Its Allure through Time,” contains 9 chapters that focus on history, cultivation, pharmacology, psychology, addiction, withdrawal, opium poetry by Martin Matz, and a final section called “To Smoke or Not to Smoke: Reviewing the Evidence.”

The second section is called “The Art and Craft of Smoking Opium,” and it contains 3 chapters on Refining and Blending the Smoking Mixture, Chinese Opium Craft, and finally, the Art and Philosophy of Smoking Opium.

While many books have been written about opium, this volume covers many centuries from 5000 BCE to the present day. The first chapter describes Sumerian tablets excavated in Iraq that refer to opium as the “herb of joy.” Opium became linked in ancient Greek mythology with Nyx, the goddess of night, with Morpheus, god of dreams, and with Thanatos, god of death, which as the author points out, nicely summarizes the primary properties of opium.

In fact, opium (produced by the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae) is probably the most well known and widely used traditional medicine throughout the history of medicine. Its virtues were described by Hippocrates (ca. 460–377 BCE), the father of medicine, and the Greek physician Galen (ca. 130–200 CE) for numerous ailments. It was fascinating to learn that opium was highly valued in Arabian traditional medicine, and it was the Arab culture that first introduced the use of opium to the ancient world, including the Chinese, in approximately 600 CE. The history of the British and Chinese opium wars in 1839 and 1865 is also fascinating, especially the link between the British obsession with tea from China, and some interesting parallels linking tea, China, and the United States’ famous “Boston Tea Party.”

The highly refined and destructive opium-derived drug heroin was first fully synthesized by a German scientist and was known as “Number 4 Heroin.” The name ‘heroin’ was given to the drug by the pharmaceutical company Bayer, which produced and distributed the drug throughout the world. Ironically, it was initially believed that heroin was a non-addictive painkiller and an effective cure for morphine and codeine (both alkaloids derived from opium) addiction. The author does not dwell on heroin but does point out the extremely destructive effect of this highly refined drug on the health of addicts. He does, however, suggest that the spread of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS via shared needles among heroin addicts could be dramatically reduced if these opiate users were introduced to smoking opium in controlled settings. His description of the calm and relaxing opium smoking establishments in China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States do sound far less destructive than the environments often associated with heroin addicts.

The author also makes an interesting case for re-exploring the use of inhaled opium extracts with some of the more toxic alkaloids removed to treat depression. His discussion of the current pharmaceuticals being marketed and used to treat depression and the potential role of opium-derived treatments is worthy of continued modern medical research.

I was also fascinated to learn that some of the artists, explorers, and great writers of the past two centuries did partake in the “Big Smoke.” Among those people briefly mentioned are Sir Richard Burton, who discovered the origin of the headwaters of the Nile, Graham Greene, the famous novelist, and Pablo Picasso.

There is a tremendous amount of detail in this volume on the art and ritual of this Chinese tradition. It is carefully written and the chapters on the pharmacology and alkaloids present in P. somniferum are useful and well written. There is no doubt that people have used this powerful plant for medicine, health, relaxation, and at times as an escape from daily life. It is also clear that people who have been able to use opium in a positive, healthy way have to be careful, thoughtful, and in control of dosing and preparing their material. It is a powerful plant that must be respected and used with caution, even in the best of circumstances.

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, PhD Napo Pharmaceuticals Inc. South San Francisco, CA