Opium Smoking In China

Many writers on Chinese topics delight to dwell upon the slow but sure destruction of morals, manners, and men, which is being gradually effected throughout the Empire by the terrible agency of opium.

Harrowing pictures are drawn of once well-to-do and happy districts which have been reduced to know the miseries of disease and poverty by indulgence in the fatal drug. The plague itself could not decimate so quickly, or war leave half the desolation in its track, as we are told is the immediate result of forgetting for a few short moments the cares of life in the enjoyment of a pipe of opium. To such an extent is this language used, that strangers arriving in China expect to see nothing less than the stern reality of all the horrors they have heard described; and they are astonished at the busy, noisy sight of a Chinese town, the contented, peaceful look of China’s villagers, and the rich crops which are so readily yielded to her husbandmen by many an acre of incomparable soil. Where, then, is this scourge of which men speak? Evidently not in the highways, the haunts of commerce, or in the quiet repose of far-off agricultural hamlets. Bent on search, and probably determined to discover something, our seeker after truth is finally conducted to an opium den, one of those miserable hells upon earth common to every large city on the globe. Here he beholds the vice in all its hideousness; the gambler, the thief, the beggar, and such outcasts from the social circle, meet here to worship the god who grants a short nepenthe from suffering and woe. This, then, is China, and travellers’ tales are but too true. A great nation has fallen a prey to the insidious drug, and her utter annihilation is but an affair of time!

We confess, however, we have looked for these signs in vain; but our patience has been rewarded by the elucidation of facts which have led us to brighter conclusions than those so generally accepted. We have not judged China as a nation from the inspection of a few low opium-shops, or from the half dozen extreme cases of which we may have been personally cognizant, or which we may have gleaned from the reports of medical missionaries in charge of hospitals for native patients. We do not deny that opium is a curse, in so far as a large number of persons would be better off without it; but comparing its use as a stimulant with that of alcoholic liquors in the West, we are bound to admit that the comparison is very much to the disadvantage of the latter. Where opium kills its hundreds, gin counts its victims by thousands; and the appalling scenes of drunkenness so common to a European city are of the rarest occurrence in China. In a country where the power of corporal punishments is placed by law in the hands of the husband, wife-beating is unknown; and in a country where an ardent spirit can be supplied to the people at a low price, delirium tremens is an untranslateable term. Who ever sees in China a tipsy man reeling about a crowded thoroughfare, or lying with his head in a ditch by the side of some country road? The Chinese people are naturally sober, peaceful, and industrious; they fly from intoxicating, quarrelsome samshoo, to the more congenial opium-pipe, which soothes the weary brain, induces sleep, and invigorates the tired body.

In point of fact, we have failed to find but a tithe of that real vice which cuts short so many brilliant careers among men who, with all the advantages of education and refinement, are euphemistically spoken of as addicted to the habit of “lifting their little fingers.” Few Chinamen seem really to love wine, and opium, by its very price, is beyond the reach of the blue-coated masses. In some parts, especially in Formosa, a great quantity is smoked by the well-paid chair-coolies, to enable them to perform the prodigies of endurance so often required of them. Two of these fellows will carry an ordinary Chinaman, with his box of clothes, thirty miles in from eight to ten hours on the hottest days in summer. They travel between five and six miles an hour, and on coming to a stage, pass without a moment’s delay to the place where food and opium are awaiting their arrival. After smoking their allowance and snatching as much rest as the traveller will permit, they start once more upon the road; and the occupant of the chair cannot fail to perceive the lightness and elasticity of their tread, as compared with the dull, tired gait of half an hour before. They die early, of course; but we have trades in civilised England in which a man thirty-six years of age is pointed at as a patriarch.

It is also commonly stated that a man who has once begun opium can never leave it off. This is an entire fallacy. There is a certain point up to which a smoker may go with impunity, and beyond which he becomes a lost man in so far as he is unable ever to give up the practice. Chinamen ask if an opium-smoker has the yin or not; meaning thereby, has he gradually increased his doses of opium until he has established a craving for the drug, or is he still a free man to give it up without endangering his health. Hundreds and thousands stop short of the yin; a few, leaving it far behind them in their suicidal career, hurry on to premature old age and death. Further, from one point of view, opium-smoking is a more self-regarding vice than drunkenness, which entails gout and other evils upon the third and fourth generation. Posterity can suffer little or nothing at the hands of the opium-smoker, for to the inveterate smoker all chance of posterity is denied. This very important result will always act as an efficient check upon an inordinately extensive use of the drug in China, where children are regarded as the greatest treasures life has to give, and blessed is he that has his quiver full.

Indulgence in opium is, moreover, supposed to blunt the moral feelings of those who indulge; and to a certain extent this is true. If your servant smokes opium, dismiss him with as little compunction as you would a drunken coachman; for he can no longer be trusted. His wages being probably insufficient to supply him with his pipe and leave a balance for family expenses, he will be driven to squeeze more than usual, and probably to steal. But to get rid of a writer or a clerk merely because he is a smoker, however moderate, would be much the same as dismissing an employe for the heinous offence of drinking two glasses of beer and a glass of sherry at his dinner-time. An opium-smoker may be a man of exemplary habits, never even fuddled, still less stupefied. He may take his pipe because he likes it, or because it agrees with him; but it does not follow that he must necessarily make himself, even for the time being, incapable of doing business. Wine and moonlight were formerly considered indispensables by Chinese bards; without them, no inspiration, no poetic fire. The modern poetaster who pens a chaste ode to his mistress’s eyebrow, seeks in the opium-pipe that flow of burning thoughts which his forefathers drained from the wine-cup. We cannot see that he does wrong. We believe firmly that a moderate use of the drug is attended with no dangerous results; and that moderation in all kinds of eating, drinking, and smoking, is just as common a virtue in China as in England or anywhere else.


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