H382 Opium and Empires: Eastern Asia's Narcotic Trade and Culture in Global Context

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 3, Year 3 of 4 or Year 4 of 4
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of History

Module overview

One of the axioms of modern times is the intricate relationship between warfare and the sale of drugs, in particular opiates. The emergence of contemporary China is particularly marked by this phenomenon, to the extent that China’s modern history officially begins with the “Opium War” of 1840. Yet, it is not merely China which seems inextricably entwined with the history of opium: Entrenched in societies from the Atlantic to the eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Iran, from India to Indonesia and along the entire South-East Asian coastline, opium and its derivatives were used for both medical and recreational purposes in regionally discrete forms and following differing social conventions and legal frameworks. The purpose of this course is to trace the development of opium – the drug’s trade and social appropriations – across the eastern end of the above geographical spectrum and with an emphasis between 1800 and 1930, i.e. eastern Asia’s “long opium century”.

This course questions the received wisdom that opium was an evil imposed by imperialism as a consequence of canon boat diplomacy, by analysing a holistic picture of the cultural and social history of opium. 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. A final objective of this course is to examine government policies established in reaction to the widespread use, medical and social, of opium and other drugs, with a critical scrutiny of the effects of prohibition and criminalisation.

The course is based on one seminar session per week (two hours), with compulsory tutorial attendance (one hour). Students will be provided with handouts for each session - containing detailed bibliographical information and the chronological and thematic frame of the lecture - as well as with a general course syllabus and bibliography. Tutorials will allow students to analyse primary sources in class, as well as to discuss crucial themes with the entire group. The convenor will endeavour to make readings, especially articles, available by means of JSTOR via the Moodle platform.


  • Students  enrol via the on-line Module Sign-Up system. Students are advised of the timing of this process via email by the Faculty Office

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, students will:

  1. At the end of the course, a student is expected to have gained significant insight into the development of today’s international trade network, with particular reference to the commercial connections between India, south-eastern Asia and China. Equally strong emphasis is allocated to the understanding of the developments which caused, and in turn influenced, the patterns of societal change in the above regions. “Opium and Empires” is thus a case study in commercial as well as in social history.
  2. Students will be encouraged from the beginning to deploy their already acquired knowledge of historical methodology to the fullest breadth, facilitated by the cross-disciplinary nature of this course (borrowing aspects of anthropology, economics, political science, pharmacology and medicine). The concomitant tutorials are intended to develop a deeper understanding of the primary sources forming the basis of this Special Subject course: government documents, travel descriptions, medical accounts, newspaper articles, brief examples of relevant fiction, autobiographic records, as well as illustrative, photographic and film material. Furthermore, it is aimed that students develop a range of study and research skills relevant to eastern Asian and global history, which can also be transferred to other historical settings. It is finally hoped that students will be able to interpret the contradictions and conflicts which arise from today’s global drug scene, beyond the stereotypes which abound in press and popular literature.By the end of this course students are expected to have gained a thorough understanding of the development of a narcotic culture and economy in southern and eastern Asia during the nineteenth century. Crucially, their newly gained course-specific knowledge will also lead to more profound insight into the modern history of our world in general, and in particular between India, south-east and eastern Asia, as well as Europe (all regions, incl. Anatolia and trans-Uralian Russia) and the Arabian / Iranian area. In methodological terms, students will have been familiarised with the growing body of secondary literature, as well as with relevant archival holdings at SOAS (Special Collections) and in London (British Library, Wellcome Library).
  3. The course, while anchored in the Chinese historical experience, is intended to be taught with the participation of colleagues whose expertise focuses on South and South-East Asia, with the occasional help of Middle Eastern experts. This broad pedagogical approach is intended to provide a comprehensive ‘preliminary conclusion’ to the teaching contents appropriated during the first two years of the SOAS history degree. Since this is a Special Subject course, students are expected to come equipped with some historical background knowledge of any of the regions discussed in the syllabus. The course is designed to sensitise and perfect our students’ methodological skills concerning primary source analysis, placing them in the best position to pursue postgraduate studies by the end of this course.

Scope and syllabus

1          From South America to East Asia – new crops, new habits
2          Tobacco – a globalisation success story in southern and eastern Asia
3          Spirits, meridians, alcohol and tea in Chinese civilisation
4          Medical drugs and popular religion on the Indian subcontinent
5          Opium in South-East Asia
6          Opium as medicine: Europe, India, China
7          Opium as entertainment: Recreational use and guest ritual in China
8          The era of the East India Companies: Tea and opium
9          The “Opium War” in three keys
10         Opium and other drugs in nineteenth-century South-East Asia
11         International trade and social transformation in 1900
12         Easy dreaming: The advent of morphine and heroin in eastern Asia
13         The French opium regime in Indochina
14         The League of Nations and the first drug suppression movements
15         Opiates, warlords and politics in early Republican China
16         Shanghai: Whore of the East or Pearl of the Orient?
17         Medical modernity: Drug replacement therapies and new alternatives
18         Control, not prohibition – the Japanese approach in Taiwan
19         Communist approaches to the opium problem
20         Opium and Warfare: Case study Burma and the Golden Triangle
21         REVISION
22         REVISION

Method of assessment

  • One review essay of 1,000 words (15%)
  • One essay of 2,500 words (25%)
  • One primary source analysis of 1,000 words (10%)


Lars Laamann



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