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?
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Opium Culture: The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition
Concise overview of the culture, history, and smoking of opium in the traditional Chinese manner
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