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Opium Culture: The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition

4.5/5, 4.5 from 2 reviews
Abe Books ISBN:
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Concise overview of the culture, history, and smoking of opium in the traditional Chinese manner
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Recent Reviews

  1. Somniphile
    draws the reader into the mystical world of Chinese opium culture
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Mar 27, 2018
    As the title states this book is all about the Chinese tradition of opium use. The author covers the history of how opium came to China, the involvement of the British and what lead to the opium wars. Further the production and harvesting process is explained in detail. The use of opium in the medical industry as well as the suppression of it by the pharmaceutical industry is also covered.

    The author gives a lot of factual information which seems to be biased towards the use of opium but does on the other hand mention risks of addiction clearly and states that the use of opium is a personal choice to be made.

    What makes this book a great read however is not the factual information but the way the book draws the reader into the mystical world of Chinese opium culture. Filled with literary quotes from famous opium users and superb sociological insights Peter Lee uses a captivating narrative to explain in great detail the paraphernalia, process and cultural aspects of opium use in ancient China.

    Overall it is a great book to read, full of historic, politic and anthropolic information. This book goes beyond the description of opium as a simple drug and is a great eye-opener. Sometimes it seems as if Lee is trying to turn the reader into a devoted opium smoker but this is not true. While the author certainly thinks that opium smoking should be a personal choice equal space is given to the positive and negative sides of the drug. I can only recommend this book for anyone interested in opium be it from a medical, recreational or especially historical and cultural aspect.
    2 members found this helpful.
  2. la fee brune
    Good Primer for Those Interested in Opium Smoking
    4/5, 4 out of 5, reviewed Nov 21, 2017
    There are probably better places to look for a detailed history of opium and its use – Booth’s “Opium: A History” springs to mind – but Lee’s book is nonetheless a useful primer for anyone interested in opium, particularly the Chinese method of smoking it. Still, one gets the feeling that Lee is simply trying to cover too much ground in one volume, touching on everything from Taoist associations with opium to New Age detox remedies to Big Pharma’s role in drug prohibition.

    Besides the lack of references, the book’s two major drawbacks are Lee’s invectives against the pharmaceutical industry and his promotion of New Age remedies like the “clear light” method, which he (unsurprisingly) fails to support with any sort of medical literature or scientific evidence. While Lee is clearly preaching to the choir about Big Pharma, his approach is overbearing and heavy-handed, and it detracts from the more enjoyable aspects of the book.

    Lee’s philosophy of moderate, controlled opium use is one that may seem odd to those conditioned by addiction to modern opioids, and I’m inclined to believe that such moderation is only possible when smoking the drug in the manner Lee describes. Lee’s philosophy touches on – but does not fully articulate – the vast gap between the social position of opium in traditional Chinese society and synthetic opioids in contemporary Western societies.

    Despite the book’s weaknesses, parts of it are utterly compelling, such as the interviews with modern-day opium smokers. Readers who aren’t already familiar with opium’s effects when smoked may be surprised to read that some smokers consider the drug conducive to productivity or that some use it as an aphrodisiac. Lee’s descriptions of the preparation and smoking of chandu are the highlight of the book, however.

    The section of poetry by Martin Matz and Lee’s overall approach to his subject matter may strike some readers as a tad too “orientalist” at times, but I enjoyed it. After all, what would opium smoking be without a little Eastern romance? ;)

Book Details

  1. Book Type:
    Peter Lee
    • Paperback: 256 pages
    • Publisher: Park Street Press (November 29, 2005)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 1594770751
    • ISBN-13: 978-1594770753
    • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
    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.
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