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Opium Culture – History in Art

December 24, 2018 3 min read

There is too much that I do not know anything about and the role that opium played in the history of China is one of them.

Were it not for a textile-evoked curiosity I might have remained unenlightened in the cultural history forever.

Every now and then I open up the wardrobes and casually glance through the assets to ensure their well-being. During one such audit that was expected to take no more than 5 minutes I was struck once again by the man with his opium pipe.

The shawl attracted me for the many folk scenes embroidered on it that depict the lifestyle of the time.

And the motif of the man enjoying his opium pipe is perhaps the most striking one.

The curiosity drew me in to read up on the subject of the opium culture and trade.

And as usual Wikipedia offered me my first lesson in the item that became the fulcrum of the wars between Britain & China.

A summary according to Wikipedia:

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for Chinese goods (particularly silk, porcelain, and tea) in Europe created a trade imbalance between Qing Imperial China and Great Britain. European silver flowed into China through the Canton System, which confined incoming foreign trade to the southern port city of Canton. To counter this imbalance, the British East India Company began to auction opium grown in India to independent foreign traders in exchange for silver, and in doing so strengthened its trading influence in Asia. This opium was transported to the Chinese coast, where local middlemen made massive profits selling the drug inside China. The influx of narcotics reversed the Chinese trade surplus, drained the economy of silver, and increased the numbers of opium addicts inside the country, outcomes that worried Chinese officials.

In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor, rejecting proposals to legalize and tax opium, appointed viceroy Lin Zexuto solve the problem by completely banning the opium trade (various forms of opium had been prohibited in China since 1729) without offering compensation and ordered a blockade of foreign trade in Canton. Lin confiscated 20,283 chests of opium (approximately 1210 tons or 2.66 million pounds) after confining the foreign traders to the Canton Factories and cutting off their supplies. The British government did not question China’s right to prohibit opium, but it objected to the way this was handled; it viewed the sudden strict enforcement as laying a trap for the traders, and the confinement of the British with their supplies cut off was tantamount to starving them into submission or death. They dispatched a military force to China and in the ensuing conflict, the Royal Navy used its naval and gunnery power to inflict a series of decisive defeats on the Chinese Empire, a tactic later referred to as gunboat diplomacy.

In 1842, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking—the first of what the Chinese later called the unequal treaties—which granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, opened five treaty ports to foreign merchants, and ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Empire. The failure of the treaty to satisfy British goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Opium War(1856–60), and the perceived weakness of the Qing dynasty resulted in social unrest within China, namely the Taiping Rebellion. In China, the war is considered the beginning of modern Chinese history.”


Am sure if history had been taught to me through art in school, the hours, the effort and the money spent on the education would have yielded much greater success!


See more of this asset – 1149 Antique Cantonese Shawl here on wovensouls.com


December 2018

wovensouls antique textiles gallery

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