Opium Smoking in Old China

A 1952 New Yorker article describes a visit to a Chinese opium den, or divan, as it is properly called, just like we used to see in old Fu Manchu movies.  The then-new Communist government was vigorously closing them down, so the author had to go surreptitiously with a Chinese writer friend, be led there by a runner for the den, and pass through a speakeasy-type checkpoint.  He does not even disclose the city.  No doubt this den was one of the last, and such a visit would soon be impossible.

The room, just as we pictured, was mysteriously quiet and dimly lit with silent occupants lying on wide, low platforms along the walls, sucking their pipes, occasionally reaching out to lazily pet a wondering cat.  Everything was in shades of brown—dark brown walls, shiny brown bamboo mats, amber faces in the smoky yellow lamplight.  On entering, they are each given a kit of paraphernalia containing an oil lamp, a pipe, two six-inch steel needles, and two tiny opium containers made of bone.  The pipe had a stout bamboo stem about 18 inches long and a ceramic bowl the size of a doorknob having a small conical depression in the center.   They were led to a screened-off alcove reserved for groups with one bench large enough to hold four or five customers and several porcelain “pillows,” which were rounded cubic blocks about six inches high, to rest their heads.  Once settled, a slippered servant carrying cups of tea appeared out of the darkness.  Smoking opium increases thirst.

Opium-smoking, like all pipe-smoking, is a thoughtful, unhurried activity.  Charging the pipe is complicated, and the author’s friend preferred to be a “one-armed smoker,” meaning he has an employee of the den prepare the pipe, in this case, the runner who brought them.  In the old days, pretty sing-song girls would be available to do it.  The opium inside the small container was brown and half-way between a liquid and a gum.  The runner poked one of the needles in and out so that only a tiny amount of opium stuck to the steel.  He held this over the flame where it loudly sizzled and bubbled, then rolled the needle against the cool lamp chimney.  He repeated this several times until he had formed a hard, BB-sized ball.  This cooking process was much like cooking an egg; it hardened the opium without making it brittle. The runner heated it one more time and held it at the bottom of the bowl.  When he removed the needle, the opium ball was stuck to the bowl with a hole through the center where the needle had been.

The smoker presses his lips to the pipe stem (Not around it.  It is about an inch wide.) while holding the pipe upside down over the flame.  The opium loudly sizzles and bubbles again as the smoker inhales dense clouds of smoke.  The actual smoking only takes a minute, far less than the elaborate preparation.

Good opium was hard to get.  Like any substance declared illegal, it was continually becoming more expensive and cheating with adulterants was normal.  The crude opium looks like a large gingersnap and has  been processed from the original poppy sap by many steps of mixing and heating.  Large amounts came in cantaloupe-sized balls, a single one often owned by several investing partners.

The  better bamboo pipe stems have an ivory tip.  Wood so near the face suggests a coffin to the Chinese.  Also, the characters for “wood” and “mouth” make the character for “idiot.”  All of the pipes here were ordinary since this was the Chinese equivalent of our blue-collar neighborhood tavern, and the other customers were local laborers.  The stems do not become their best until their insides become coated with a thick layer of opium gum that is occasionally scrapped off to be mixed with the crude opium, not as an adulterant, but to improve its consistency.

The feeling from smoking opium is one of well-being and not the stupor-inducing narcotic effect of heroin which the opium-smokers abhorred because of its much greater addictive properties and totally different experience.  The described effect of opium smoking is much like the mellowing-out of today’s pot-smoking.  In the dim atmosphere of the den, the occupants moved slowly and spoke quietly with none of the frequent loud spots in Cantonese dialect that can sound angry to foreigners.  Four things are said to make good smoking: soft rain on a windowpane, a clear, brilliant lamp, a big sizzling noise of the pipe, and—most importantly—friendship.

The well-known debilitating effects of opium on the Romantic poets, such as Coleridge, Byron, and Shelly, are attributed to their use of opium in the form of laudanum, which is a tincture of opium taken orally in drops that is easily overdone.

The author’s friend smoked three pipes during the evening, and everything became pleasanter as the smoking continued.   “Opium smoking jolts you out of the blues,” he explained.  “When you are in the dumps, it makes you feel everyone is reaching out toward you with sympathy.  It makes you want to do things—with friends—not because you feel you can do everything better than anyone, but with kindness.  If you gamble, you gamble to lose because you feel you can take the loss better than anyone. Winning is meaningless. . . . . An old saying is that alcohol makes a pig out of a gentleman, but opium makes a gentleman out of a pig.”

Opium is slow to take effect, requiring about 45 minutes.  It is thought to enhance athletic ability.  The author’s friend once  played spectacular tennis in a championship match while on opium but lost every point when it suddenly wore off.  “It is like the works of God,” he said, “not seen, not heard, but felt.  Time is just suspended. . . . Smoking steadies me up for writing [but] it is like a surgical instrument—dangerous if you don’t control it.  It will help your thoughts fly over the cosmos. . . . You will get exactly nowhere, though, unless you have your goal all planned out, fixed before you smoke.  Unless you take care in advance, you’ll plunge in the wrong direction, to things that are not concrete. . . . We Chinese call smoking opium taming the tiger, and anyone knows you don’t enter a tiger’s cage without risk.  Even so, half the habit is psychological.”

As they left, a lookout checked to see that the street was clear, and they stepped from the doorway into a chilly wind.  The Chinese friend said, “After the opium, I feel that a cold night is just what is wanted.  That wind coming down the alley is just right, too.  It has all been laid out in perfect harmony.  That’s how it always is when you’ve been smoking.”



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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