China and Opium: A Book Review of “The Social Life of Opium in China” by Zheng Yangwen

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            Our of all the controversial narcotics, opium is one of the most popular drug since time immemorial. The use of opium is traceable embedded in many cultures of the world.  It is just ironic that opium use is one of the most detested acts, and yet the society seems to tolerate its existence. Moreover, China is being strongly associated with opium. The relationship of China and opium was explored by Zheng Yangwen’s book, “The Social Life of Opium in China”.


Zheng Yangwen’s book, “The Social Life of Opium in China”, basically explores the relationship of China to opium use. And for the discussion of the topic, the book had dissected China’s history. There were some key questions that the author had posed: “who smoked opium and why?” and “how and when, then, did opium come to lodge itself within the sophisticated Chinese culture of consumption?” (Yangwen 1). These questions had become a guide for the whole course of the book. As strategy for an in-depth exploration of the topic, the author had treated the social opium as if it was a real person’s biography.  This is in reference to the argument that commodities, in this case opium, have social lives and life histories just like a real person.

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The author had outlined the transformation of opium from being a simple medicine to a highly abused drug. The book had utilized historical accounts that encompass five hundred years of Chinese History, ancient China to the modern day China. The book had mentioned that during the mid-Ming dynasty, opium was used as an aphrodisiac.

The thesis of the book would be: from a cultural perspective, historical accounts of the transformation of the image of opium could tell us so much about how China was viewed as a culture.


            In line with the thesis, the author had cited Daniel Roche who had said,“any object even the most ordinary, embodies ingenuity, choices, a culture. A body of knowledge is a surplus of meanings are attached to all objects… clothing speaks of many things at once either  in itself or through some detail” (Yangwen 2)

The heavy association of China with opium is just understandable. That is simply because In many respects , opium had represented China to other cultures.

Moreover, a review of the social history of opium in China  could also lead us to hints about the Chinese culture. If the Ming Court of the Ming dynasty could have used opium as an aphrodisiac, this tells us much about the said era in Chinese history.

The author had presented his arguments through a writing style of a gripping historical writing. The logical and organization of interesting historical facts leads the reader to be more interesting at the topic. Furthermore, the book utilizes illustrations and tables in support of its arguments. Both really function as a good guide for the readers in such a broad discussion of social history.


            Although it may be hard to not raise some eyebrows, it could also be said that opium had somehow affected the image of China to other cultures. The Chinese had become known to other cultures as a great developer and seller of commodities. And at some point in its history, when the world was craving for opium, China has been the center of the world’s attention.

            It is safe to say that dangerous drugs such as opium are never a good thing. It is something that a society should never be proud of.  But for the case of China and opium, the Chinese people could still be proud of this particular aspect of their history. They should be proud of how something from their country had impacted the whole world. Moreover, they should be proud of the depth and the richness of their history. We could say that a negative product of the society, had somehow become a gift for the Chinese.

Work Cited

  • Yangwen, Zheng. The Social Life of Opium in China. CA: Cambridge University Press . 2005


Cite this page

China and Opium: A Book Review of “The Social Life of Opium in China” by Zheng Yangwen. (2016, Oct 06). Retrieved from

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