New perspectives over the role of opium in the history of China
by Xavier Paulès, Assistant Professor at EHESS, Paris
Reservation & Contact: Heipo Leung
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“Why was opium such a striking success in China?” and “Why not elsewhere?” remain puzzling questions in the modern history of China. The importance of opium in the economic, political, and social spheres is widely acknowledged among historians. But the dramatic narrative of addiction, of imperialist aggression and induced drain of silver has too often obscured the fact that its impact was multifaceted and far from being univocally negative.
Opium was smoked in China (blended with tobacco leaves) since the seventeenth century. The first opium smokers were well-to-do Southerners who were able to afford a pricy item imported from India. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a tremendous rise of the consumption. At the end of the century, opium was in use in every region, and by peoples of all walks of life. The development of poppy plantation on a massive scale in China played a key role in the spreading of the drug, as it triggered a steady decrease of the prices. The drug was made legal in 1860, and afterwards, the authorities succeeded in imposing heavy taxes on the drug. Opium had become a crucial source of income for the state, a most-profitable crop for the farmers and provided a living for the myriads of people benefiting by a way or another from its trade. It had become an accepted past-time and at the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed to most observers that opium was deeply rooted in the country.
However, during the 1906-1916 period, a very strong decline in poppy production and opium consumption took place. It was followed by a revival during the warlord period due to the collapse of central power. But from the mid-1930s onward, the Guomindang took an active stance and anti-opium action again unfolded. The early 1950s campaign against drugs was the last blow in a process of decline which started in 1906. The strong anti-opium stance taken by the elites and authorities at the turn of the twentieth century did not derive from its deep and supposedly highly negative impact, but mainly because it was perceived in an elaborate analytical frame as a source of shame and weakness for the nation.
Xavier Paulès is Assistant Professor at the Centre d’étude sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris. He earned a M.A. in History from the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan. His Ph.D., from Lyon 2 University, was on opium in Canton,1912–1937, and came out as his first book in 2010, Histoire d’une drogue en sursis. L’opium à Canton, 1906–1936, by éditions de l’EHESS. His second book, a global history of opium in China from 1750 to 1950 (L’opium, Une passion chinoise, by éditions Payot), was released in September. Paulès is now conducting research about the social and intellectual significance of gambling in South China, especially the fantan. He was the 2004 winner of the Young Scholar Award of the European Association of Chinese Studies.
ALL INTERESTED ARE WELCOME!
This seminar will be held in English.
Sebastian Veg, Director of the CEFC, will chair the session.
Snacks and drinks will be served after the seminar.
Seats are limited. Please confirm your attendance.