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"Chinese Opium Smokers" by Thomas Allom

Commentary by G.H. Wright

"The rapidity with which the crime of opium-smoking has spread over the empire, may recollected from the statement, that in 1821 only four thousand chests were in use, while upwards of twenty thousand were required, to satisfy the appetite for this narcotic drug, in the year 1832. Its deleterious and debasing effects were early known to the imperial government, and every means that benevolence could suggest, duly exercised to prevent its importation. Upwards of forty years ago, the governor of Canton threatened, supplicated, the rejection of this dangerous import; and finding moral sentiments ineffectual, artfully pointed at the monetary consideration; 'Thus it is,'says his proclamation, 'that foreigners, by means of a vile and poisonous substance, derive from this empire the most solid profits and advantages; but that our countrymen should blindly pursue this destructive and ensuring habit, even till death is the consequence, without being undeceived, is indeed a fact odious and deplorable in the highest degree.'

Chinese Opium Smokers

Yet this governor was himself notorious opium-smoker. Increase of duty, threats of punishment, and obviously ruinous effects upon the human frame, were still unable to resist the passion, the mania for opium, that in a few years absorbed the whole people of China: and to such, an extent had the contraband and illegitimate trade in this noxious drug proceeded, that when war was recently declared against England by the Celestial Empire, the imports of opium exceeded the exports of tea by three millions of dollars' value annually, which balance of trade in our favour was paid in silver.

"The public censor, whose power had proved so disproportionate to the magnitude of the offence, now declared that the buyer and seller of opium should be punished with one hundred blows, and be pilloried for two months; and whoever should refuse to declare the name of the vendor was judged an accomplice, and sentenced to a hundred blows, and three years' exile. The severity of these regulations defeated their object; for, henceforth, few could be found so heartless as to expose his neighbour to the ... bastinado and banishment, for the sale of a few pounds of opium. This result is much to be deplored; for now the spendthrift, drunkard, and votary of vice in all her deformed aspects, drop into the opium-smokers, and make that detestable drug chiefly chargeable with all the crime and guilt of the Chinese. Opium may, in particular instances, inflict only one additional spot on a reputation deeply stained; but in how many has not the fascination lured victims to the sin, who might otherwise have escaped the ruin!

"It will probably be a melancholy satisfaction to Christian England to be assured, by competent and credible authorities, that the accompanying illustration does not exaggerate the deplorable spectacle exhibited by the interior of a smoking-house, into which the initiated alone are admitted. Lord Jocelyn, who accompanied a late mission to China, gives the following painful description of a smoking-house at Singapore.

'One of the objects at this place that I had the curiosity to visit, was the opium-smoker in his heaven; and certainly it is a most fearful sight, although, perhaps, not so degrading to the eye as the drunkard from spirits, lowered to the level of the brute and wallowing in his filth. The idiot-smile and death-like stupor of the opium debauchee has something far more awful to the gaze than the bestiality of the latter. Pity, if possible, takes the place of other feelings, as we watch, the faded cheek and haggard look of the being abandoned to the power of the drug, whilst disgust is uppermost at the sight of the human creature levelled to the beast by intoxication.

'One of the streets in the centre of the town is wholly devoted to shops for the sale of this poison: and here in the evening may be seen, after the labours of the day are over, crowds of Chinese, who seek these places to satisfy their depraved appetites.

'The rooms where they sit and smoke are surrounded by wooden couches, with places for the head to rest upon, and generally a side-room is devoted to gambling. The pipe is a reed of about an inch in diameter, and the aperture in the bowl for the admission of the opium is not larger than a pin's head. The drug is prepared with some kind of incense, and a very small portion is sufficient to charge it, one or two whiffs being the utmost that can be inhaled from a single pipe; and the smoke is taken into the lungs, as from the hookah in India. On a beginner, one or two pipes will have an effect, but an old stager will continue smoking for hours. At the head of each couch is placed a small lamp, as fire must be applied to the drug during the process of inhaling; and from the difficulty of filling and properly lighting the pipe, there is generally a person who waits upon the smoker to perform the office. A few days of this fearful luxury, when taken to excess, will impart a pallid and haggard look to the features; and a few months, or even weeks, will change the strong and healthy man into little better than an idiot-skeleton. The pain they suffer when deprived of the drug, after long habit, no language can explain; and it is only to a certain degree under its influence, that their faculties are alive. In the hours devoted to their ruin, these infatuated people may be seen at nine o'clock in the evening in all the different stages. Some entering half-distracted, to feed the craving appetite they had been obliged to subdue during the day; others laughing and talking under the effects of a pipe; while the couches around are filled with their different occupants, who lie languid, with an idiot- smile upon their countenances, too completely under the influence of the drug, to regard passing events, and fast merging to the wished-for consummation. The last scene in this tragic play is generally a room in the rear of the building, a species of morgue or dead-house, where lie sheltered those who have passed into the state of bliss the opium- smoker madly seeks - an emblem of the long sleep to which he is blindly hurrying.'

"It may be asked, can no remedies be discovered for a vice so deplorable, a disease so corroding to the heart of the nation? Yes, let the Chinese abolish despotism, enlarge the liberty of the people, remove prohibitory duties, cultivate foreign commerce, establish philanthropic institutions and receive the Gospel; then will the distinction between virtue and vice, truth and falsehood, honour and shame, be understood, and the duties of the public censor become less onerous and more valuable."

Anyone who understands the events leading up to "The Opium Wars" will read Wright's last paragraph with a large measure of indignation, considering the role "Christian England" played in the drama.
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