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Department of History

H382 Opium & Empires: China's Narcotic Trade and Culture in Global Context (I)

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2015/2016
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year
The history of modern China is inextricably entwined with that of opium. Traditional historiography holds that opium was an evil imposed by imperialism under the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century, turning China into a nation of cadaverous addicts in the iron grip of dependence. This course questions the received knowledge by looking at the cultural and social history of opiates from the sixteenth century to the 1950s. It covers the 'pre-history' of opium well before the advent of the 'Opium War' (1839-42) and shows how foreign merchants responded to indigenously generated demands. It also charts the multiplicity of opiates used in the twentieth century and highlights their diverse modes of consumption by a variety of social groups, from opium-smoking scholars to morphine-consuming housewives and heroin-injecting peddlers. The course will also show how prohibition in the early twentieth century contributed to social exclusion, driving drug consumption downwards the social ladder as it was criminalised, and how far government policies purporting to contain opiates actually created a 'drug problem'.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

This course questions received historiographical knowledge by analysing the role of drugs in China’s culture and society between the early eighteenth century and today’s post-Deng Xiaoping China. Focusing on social change, patterns of narcotic consumption are introduced in accordance with cultural, social and political determinants. The aim is to reconstruct the role of drugs as part of the social life of elite representatives and general population alike.

A secondary aim of this course is to accustom history students to the use of primary source materials. This is accomplished by weekly engagement with sources, covering circa fifty percent of the time spent in class.

Suggested reading

  • Booth, M. Opium: A History (London 1996); 
  • Mike, J. Artificial paradises: A drugs reader (London 1999);
  • Berridge, V. Opium and the people: Opiate use and drug control policy in nineteenth and early twentieth century England (London and New York 1999);
  • McAllister, W. Drug diplomacy in the twentieth century: an international history (London, 2000);
  • Dikötter, F., L. Laamann and X. Zhou. Narcotic culture: The social history of drugs in China, (Chicago 2004).