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The Chinese Encounter with Opium

5/5, 5 from 1 review
Abe Books ISBN:
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Packed with gorgeous illustrations and fascinating tidbits about the history of opium culture in China
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  1. la fee brune
    Comprehensive and fascinating
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Apr 18, 2018
    If there were ever an encyclopedia of opium smoking, this book would be it. I've read a lot about this topic, and The Chinese Encounter with Opium is by far the most comprehensive and sophisticated work on the subject of opium smoking that I've ever come across. Many books on the topic focus on either the beauty of the paraphernalia or the drug itself, but the author covers both topics admirably, demonstrating his intimate knowledge of the "Chinese habit." One can sense his humor in his thinly veiled attempt at anonymity - most collectors will recognize him as the German collector Wolf K. - and in the irony with which he presents opium "cures" like the "Jesus-opium" pills containing morphine which were handed out by missionaries in China.

    Approximately the first half of this massive coffee table-style book is devoted to exploring all angles of Chinese-style opium smoking, from the harvesting of opium to the social context of opium addiction, while the second half is devoted to the material culture surrounding the drug. This book might seem like an unlikely place to look for tips on growing and harvesting poppies, but the author provides a wealth of information on everything from when poppies secrete the most morphine to the relative advantages of different types of incisions on pods.

    The author's treatment of the subject of opium addiction in China will surely surprise many modern readers who are accustomed to viewing all opioid addiction as a monolith. Wolf K. presents detailed calculations of the amount of morphine ingested by opium smokers and compares them to historically documented figures regarding opium consumption, shattering assumptions about the destructiveness of opium smoking. According to the author's calculations, it would have been highly infeasible for most smokers to be heavy addicts, and most users would have been considered moderate. In fact, opium smoking was considered so benign that life insurance companies in China considered smokers "first class" risks and did not impose additional premiums on them.

    While the photographs of Wolf K.'s collection and the copious examples of opium-related ephemera in the book are gorgeous to behold, the real value of this book, in my opinion, lies in the insight it provides into the nature of opioid use and addiction - and its implications for harm reduction. As the author assiduously demonstrates, not all use was - or is - abuse. For centuries, a good portion of the Chinese population partook of opium smoking without becoming addicted in the modern sense, and the author provides ample proof of this fact. Wolf K. avoids stating outright that he believes opium smoking should be legalized, but that is the implication of the evidence he presents. Anyone who is interested in gaining a more balanced perspective on the opioid crisis would benefit from reading this book. While most contemporary discussions of addiction are woefully historically uninformed, Wolf K.'s masterful work provides an oasis of impartiality in a desert of sensationalism.
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