Caught up in the world of cheerfully sexy pirates, I waded through the trials and tribulations of Eitel’s heroic Free Traders to his chapter on “The Opium Question and the Exodus from Canton, 1839” (75-95). Now, the opening chapters of Europe in Asia had prepared me for his ‘blame the addict’ explanation for the opium trade, but I’d be lying if I claimed that I had anticipated the Alice in Wonderland moment which opened his discussion:

“The taste for opium is a congenital disease of the Chinese race. At the beginning of the Christian era, the uses and effects of opium were the secret of the Buddhist priesthood in China. Priests from India secured for themselves divine honours by performing feats of ascetic discipline, fasting and mental absorption, sitting for instance motionless for months at a time indolently gazing at a black wall. These feats were performed by means of opium.”

And before I could trudge through the next sentence, “Buddhist and Taoist priests peregrinated through the whole of China performing astounding medical cures by means of opiates,” I was already wondering “Drug trips and meditation not as a trope for civilization in decline, but taken as fact a good 70 years before the Summer of Love?”

But we’re not in Wonderland and we’re not in Haight Asbury and we’re not even reading historical fiction, we’re in Hong Kong circa 1895 via a monograph by a scholar, who lived 35 years in Southern China (1861-1896), worked to learn local Chinese languages, promoted girls’ education, and actually took time to learn about what was going on around him before retiring to Australia. In other words, his understanding of opium was part of an effort to help colonizers do better. The question for us who are reading him over a century after the fact is, what can we learn from him despite his prejudices and our own?

On the one hand, Maurice Freedman, who is recognized today as an important contributor to contemporary Hong Kong studies specifically and China studies more generally cited Eitel’s research on feng shui. In other words, the range of Eitel’s interests and his commitment to life on the ground meant that he paid attention to what was going on around him, weaving all sorts of ethnographically interesting material through the warp of colonialism. On the other hand, Eitel’s position in the colonial order of things was vexed. He favored colonialism, adored manly men, and clearly distinguished between Europeans and Asians, but he was not British-born and representatives of Great Britain seemed determined to keep him in his place, even as he tried to make a place (albeit subordinate) for Chinese girls in the British world system. Indeed, my admittedly unsystematic reading suggests that Eitel ended up teaching German at the University of Adelaide because as more British civil servants came to Hong Kong, they cold-shouldered non-Brits out of positions of authority. 

If the dates are anything to go by, Europe in Asia was Eitel’s last scholarly effort in South China. It was apparently his only effort that didn’t receive favorable reviews. In “E.J. Eitel’s Europe in Asia: A Reappraisal of the Messages and the Man,” Andrew Sweeting notes that, 

Eitel received a reasonably ‘good press’, both in his lifetime and later. His books and journal articles on such subjects as Chinese Buddhism (including reference to a Buddhist Purgatory for Women), the Hakka Chinese and their language, feng shui, flogging, spirit-rapping in China, the Uigurs, the history of Chinese philosophy, the Cantonese dialect, and the Protestant Missions of Hong Kong demonstrate a wide range of interests in, understanding of, and enthusiasm for Chinese culture.

Here’s the thing: In Eitel’s trippy mash-up of pseudo-science, yoga, and Chinese Buddhism, opium becomes the lynchpin that not only held Chinese culture in place, but also linked it to India by land (via Buddhism) and by sea (via Arab traders at Canton). Opium stands for physical addiction, esoteric mysticism, and Chinese medicine as well as the scale of the Chinese civilization before the Christian era. This brief and crazy history contextualizes the opium trade as a result of a physical and esoteric need for opium. It also seems vaguely tethered to knowledge about the history of opium. And then Eitel pivots from historical conjecture to facts, abruptly bringing the conversation back to his ongoing real world observations:

Nevertheless, while numbers of individuals taking opium in excess were physically and morally ruined by it, the use of opium never affected the health of the race to any perceptible extent. When the smoking of opium and the consequent practice of introducing opium vapour into the lungs commenced in China is not known. As early as A.D. 1678 a regular duty on foreign imported opium was levied at Canton, but for 77 years after that date the annual import did not exceed 200 chests.

Eitel suggests that smoking opium made it a commodity in the modern sense of the drug trade–deliberately fashioned in order to secure a steady market through addicted clients. And this observation also accords with what we know of the rise of opium. According to the 2002 World Drug Report, for example, smoking changed the opium trade. The habit was linked with the spread of tobacco smoking at the end of the 17th century. At the time, the Dutch East Indian Company controlled both the tobacco and opium trades in Asia, and some of the earliest smokers were Dutch colonials. Smoking opium turned out to be more addictive than traditional methods of ingesting it, and when the British East India Company took over the opium trade, it was as an addictive commodity that turned the wheel of colonial commerce.

By the time that Eitel uses opium as a lens through which to understand Chinese society, it has become the primary means through which Europeans, especially the British engage China. And here’s where the story gets interesting (in a distressing and all too human way). Just as Eitel had conflated the arrogance of the Qing mandarins and the officers of EIC, so too it seems that opium use was shaping British society and especially impressions of the “congenital” problems of the lower classes.

According to Jessica Rae Henderson, “…as the extent of usage began to be understood and associated with negative aspects of the working class, which Victorian consciousness often figured as indolent, dishonest, and even criminal, opium use began to be seen as a source of concern,” a language which echoes Eitel’s complaint about  “indolent” Buddhist monks.


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