the fiendish opium den
"A Night in an Opium Den"
The Strand (popular English magazine)
Volume 1, 1891
Click twice to read about an Englishwoman
high on opium who likes to tickle the armpits
of Chinese opium den patrons to make them giggle.
high on opium who likes to tickle the armpits
of Chinese opium den patrons to make them giggle.
from a New York University Library
special collection devoted to Oscar Wilde:
Both "London, a Pilgrimage" and "A Night in an Opium Den" (1891) feature illustrations of Asians smoking in the den to complement descriptions of the degenerate "Orientals" who have established colonies in the back alleys of the city. It seems obvious, from our perspective, that these illustrations degrade and stereotype. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, they served as crucial evidence of the secret reality glimpsed by unbiased spectators. Ironically, Doré's illustration is labeled "Opium Smoking - The Lascar's Room in [Dickens' The Mystery of] 'Edwin Drood'." Does the artist intend his illustration to copy art or life?
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from the Vleeptron Institute of Naughty Fun (VINF):
In the millennia before about 1800, the Chinese did not smoke opium for recreation nor were they addicted to opium in any identifiable numbers. They knew what it was, grew or bought small amounts of it, but exclusively as "Arab medicine," an effective treatment for diarrhea. It was not, as their name for it implies, part of traditional Chinese medicine.
All opiates and opioids are prompt and powerful agents against diarrhea, which can be life-threatening through dehydration if not reversed. The epidemics which follow breakdowns in water and sanitation infrastructure kill through dehydration from diarrhea, and doctors must halt the diarrhea and rehydrate the patient before attending to the underlying bacterial causes of the outbreaks. (Chicken soup is actually the most effective known agent for oral rehydration therapy in the field.)
A fundamental financial problem faced the trading nations of Europe after ship trade with China began around 1500. European consumers were desperate for Chinese silks and decorated earthenware ("china"), but Europe produced nothing which Chinese consumers wished to buy. This generated a huge and worsening trade imbalance. The Chinese sent silks and porcelain to Europe, but Europe was forced to buy them with silver and gold.
British merchants, with the assistance of British colonial officials, began establishing large opium plantings in India and shipping the harvest to the few ports permitted to them in Imperial China.
The Imperial government was quick to see the serious effects of such commerce, and took steps, bureaucratic, diplomatic and eventually military, to halt it.
The British responded to this restraint of free trade with its Navy, and with the assistance of other European merchant nations, waged two wars to force China to allow the opium importation and agree to annual quotas tallied in chests of large spheres of black opium gum. By the end of the Second Opium War, the effective power of Imperial China to regulate foreign imports was destroyed, and European and American merchants, backed whenever necessary by their superior militaries, set the rules for an expanded and liberalized coastal port foreign trade.
Now the trading partners were exchanging silks for the increasingly popular opium, rather than gold for silks, and China understood that its future objections would be responded to with naval shelling of its port cities, or punitive army expeditions inland. In one of history's most pathetic moments, the Emperor of China wrote a personal letter to Queen Victoria beseeching her to halt the opium trade which was destroying his subjects and weakening China.
But answer came there none.
More than a few European and American family fortunes blossomed from the China opium trade. In New England, several superb public museums owe their births to the huge profits the trade generated.
But there are accounts that throughout this era, ordinary sailors considered it bad luck to ship aboard opium or slave ships. Consciousness and perception begin where they begin, and eventually, a half-century later, the elite and the highly educated social leaders discover these ideas and find them intriguing.
The merchant/financial entity most responsible for forced opium importation into China was Jardine Matheson, still today a huge commercial and financial force in southeast Asia and the Pacific rim. (The word "opium" does not appear on their website.)
It was an obvious necessity for Western governments and merchants who profited from opium to take control of the popular understanding of it, particularly in the European parliamentary democracies, where it was possible for citizens to demand reforms of their government if large numbers of citizens perceived reforms were necessary. (In 1770 Britain outlawed slavery and ordered the Royal Navy to stamp out its worldwide trade wherever it found it.)
The myth of the morally depraved Chinese and their choice to enslave themselves and innocent Caucasians with opium addiction proved a popular fable in Europe and North America, and was an invaluable propaganda component of government and party anti-Chinese movements, particularly those whose fundamental object was to forbid or limit Chinese and Asian immigration. Large numbers of Chinese and Asians were immigrating to Europe and America for better economic (and political) circumstances, and booming Western industry was hungry for cheap labor, which undercut the wages expected by Caucasian labor.
From the get-go, the Chinese Opium Den had a central component of sexual hysteria; Chinese men were depicted as using opium to lower the moral fibre of Protestant Caucasian virgins to have their way with them. Similar myths have been enormously powerful and enduring in anti-Negro and anti-Mexican political movements in the United States. In Canadian newspapers, writing under the pseudonym "Janey Canuck," Emily Murphy luridly depicted the opium sex schemes of the Heathen Chinee. William Randolph Hearst did the same in his American newspapers with Negro and Mexican victims, and the demon weed marihuana.
For about 40 years, the Literary King of the Chinese Opium Den was a former Fleet Street reporter named Arthur Henry (Sarsfield) Ward, who, under the nom de plume Sax Rohmer, wrote an endless series of dime novels featuring the Chinese superfiend Fu Manchu.
Ward had never been farther east than Egypt (on his honeymoon), and had once accompanied some friends to London's Limehouse district, where the Chinese immigrants lived, to soak up an evening's research.
Beginning early in the sound era, the Fu Manchu novels were made into lurid movies, originally starring Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu movies were cranked out into the 1970s, including a comedy treatment starring Peter Sellers.
The Rohmer stories are essentially cheap literary ripoffs of Sherlock Holmes, with Fu Manchu substituted for Professor Moriarity, and Holmes cloned as Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, a colonial (Burma) police detective who thwarts the villain's anti-Caucasian schemes for world conquest. Fu Manchu's sole weakness is his addiction to opium; only when he is blasted out of his gord does he ever let down his guard and vigilance, and it is in these moments that Smith gets lucky and rescues Caucasian civilization at the last instant. Smith's slightly dim but brave and stalwart Watson is Dr. Petrie.
"The Page of Fu Manchu" is a remarkable rich web resource for all this Rohmer/Fu Manchu crap. More than any other single figure, Rohmer is responsible for shaping the English-language and European imagination and belief system regarding China, the Chinese, and opium. Not certain, but he may have coined the term "The Yellow Peril."
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from a New York University Library special collection devoted to Oscar Wilde:
Restyling the Secret of the Opium Den
"There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new" (196). Or so, at any rate, asserts the histrionic narrator of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The opium den episode in Wilde's novel is in many ways typical of a genre that flourished in late Victorian novels, tales, and periodicals--a genre that provides a glimpse, if not of the dens themselves, of the strategies used to represent the opium den.
Wilde, like other writers, describes how a gentleman finds thrilling adventure within the familiar city by travelling in disguise through dark and gloomy streets to a secluded lair. The den in Wilde's novel is, like those depicted in other texts, a doubly exotic site where the gentleman mingles with social and racial others, pursuing illicit satisfaction among vicious criminals and grotesque "Orientals." Wilde furnishes all the traditional lurid details for the reader who craves to know what goes on within the "dens of horror."
However, the opium den episode in The Picture of Dorian Gray provides for a more complex reading than most narratives, because Wilde subjects the enabling illusion of opium den stories to close scrutiny. Most opium den narratives promise to expose the secrets of the occult den and, crucially, promise that the secrets it reveals are objective truths. Carefully designed to thrill the reader, they achieve their frisson by presenting themselves as straightforward and unadorned accounts of reality. Yet Wilde, who proclaims in the proem to the novel that "it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors," would naturally distrust the narrator who claims to have captured "life" or "reality" untainted by the imagination. As one might expect, Wilde's description of Dorian's adventure conveys "life" through the eyes of a spectator who transforms it metaphorically.
In Wilde's narrative, the secret reality of the opium den can never be exposed, only made variously obscure by the imaginations that refashion it in narrative.
-- Timothy L. Carens