"Opium began life in the Chinese empire as an import from the vaguely identified 'Western regions' (Ancient Greece and Rome, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan); the earliest Chinese reference (in a medical manual) occurs in the first half of the eighth century. Eaten or drunk, prepared in may different ways (ground, boiled, honeyed, infused, mixed with ginger, ginseng, liquorice, vinegar, black plums, ground rice, caterpillar fungus), it served for all kinds of ailments (diarrhoea and dysentery, arthritis, diabetes, malaria, chronic coughs, a weak constitution). By the eleventh century, it was recognized for its recreational, as well as curative uses. 'It does good to the mouth and throat', observed one satisfied user. 'I have but to drink a cup of poppy-seed decoction, and I laugh, and am happy.' 'It looks like myrrh," elaborated a court chronicle some four hundred years later. 'It is dark yellow, soft and sticky like ox glue. It tastes bitter, produces excessive heat and is poisonous… It enhances the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies… Its price equals that of gold.' Opium was supposed to help control ejaculation which, as sexological theory told it, enabled sperm to retreat to feed the male brain. Opium-enriched aphrodisiacs became a boom industry in Ming China (1368–1644)—possibly contributing the the high death rate of the dynasty's emperors (eleven out of a total of sixteen Ming rulers failed to get past their fortieth birthday). In 1958, as part of a final push to root out the narcotic in China, the new Communist government excavated the tomb of Wanli, the hypochondriac (though long-lived) emperor of the late Ming, and found his bones saturated with morphine. Enterprising Ming cooks even tried to stir-fry it, fashioning poppy seed into curd as a substitute for tofu. Opium was one of the chief ingredients of a Ming-dynasty cure-all, the 'big golden panacea' (for use against toothache athlete's foot and too much sex), in which the drug was combined with (amongst other things) bezoar, pearl, borneol, musk, rhinoceros horn, antelope horn, catechu, cinnabar, amber, eagle wood, aucklandia root, white sandalwood; all of which had first to be gold-plated, then pulverized, turned into pellets with breast milk, and finally swallowed with pear juice. (Take one at a time, the pharmacological manuals recommended.)
It was yet another import—in the shape of tobacco from the New World—that led to the smoking of opium. Introduced to China at some point between 1573 and 1627 (around the same time as the peanut, the sweet potato and maize), by the middle of the seventeenth century tobacco-smoking had become an empire-wide habit. As the Qing established itself in China after 1644, the dynasty made nervous attempts to ban it as 'a crime more heinous even than that of neglecting archery': smokers and sellers could be fined, whipped and even decapitated. By by around 1726, the regime had given up the empire's tobacco addiction as a bad job, with great fields of the stuff swaying just beyond the capital's walls. And somewhere in the early eighteenth century, a new, wonderful discovery had reached China from Java, carried on Chinese ships between the two places: that tobacco was even better if you soaked it first in opium syrup (carried mainly in Portuguese cargoes). First stop for this discovery was the Qing's new conquest, Taiwan; from there it passed to the mainland's maritime rim, and then the interior.
It was smoking that made Chinese consumers take properly to opium. Smoking was sociable, skilled and steeped in connoisseurship (with its carved, bejewelled pipes of jade, ivory and tortoiseshell, its silver lamps for heating and tempering the drug, its beautiful red sandalwood couches on which consumers reclined). It was also less likely to kill the consumer than the eaten or drunk version of the drug: around 80–90 per cent of the morphia may have been lost in fumes from the pipe or exhaled. Through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China made opium-smoking its own: a chic post-prandial; an essential lubricant of the sing-song (prostitution) trade; a must-have hospitality item for all self-respecting hosts; a favourite distraction from the pressures of court life for the emperor and his household. Opium houses could be salubrious, even luxurious institutions, far from the Dickensian den-of-vice stereotype (like an 'intimate beer-house,' a surprised Somerset Maugham pronounced in 1922—a mature stage in China's drug plague), in which companionable groups of friends might enjoy a civilized pipe or two over tea and dim-sum.
Somewhere near the start of the nineteenth century, smokers began to dispense with the diluting presence of tobacco—perhaps because pure opium was more expensive, and therefore more status-laden. Around this time, thanks to the quality control exercised by the diligent rulers of British India (who established a monopoly over opium production in Bengal in 1793), the supply also became more reliable, no longer regularly contaminated by adulterants such as horse dung and sand. A way of burning money, smoking was the perfect act of conspicuous consumption. Every stage was enveloped in lengthy, elaborate, costly ritual: the acquisition of exquisite paraphernalia; the intricacy of learning how to cook and smoke it (softening the dark ball of opium to a dark, caramelized rubber, inserting it into the hole on the roof of the pipe bowl, then drawing slowly, steadily on the pipe to such the gaseous morphia out); the leisurely doze that followed the narcotic hit. The best families would go one step further in flaunting their affluence, by keeping an opium chef to prepare their pipes for them. The empire's love affair with opium can be told through the beautiful lyrics it manufactured for consuming the drug, through the lyrics that aficionados composed to their heavy, treacly object of desire, or in bald statistics. In 1780, a British East India Company (EIC) ship could not break even on a single opium cargo shipped to Canton. By 1839, imports were topping 40,000 chests per annum."
—Julia Lovell The Opium War