A History of Opium by Lucy Inglis

(2022-08-13 09:41:50) 下一個

A resident of the Golden State for 16 years, I have often seen the California

poppies, and each time, I reminded myself of what they were not, i.e., opium

poppies which were in my mind permanently associated with the 19th-century opium

wars. Most recently, pictures of a valley of blossom in a superbloom from a

friend's blog finally prompted me to read about Papaver somniferum. I opened the

Inglis book just to see what it had to say.


Looking back, it was a miracle that I had lived to almost 50 knowing so little

about narcotics in general. Middle-school history classes taught me that opium

was evil, a source of terrible addiction that sapped the Qing China and led to

the wars and humiliations of the nation. More than a century later, the

Communist party must have banned the cursed plant and its fruit. I for one had

not seen anyone consuming it in any form. Stories of relatives bankrupting their

families, before the revolution, by smoking some thick paste made out of it, were

distant tales and my generation grew up in the happy oblivion of an opium-free



In the West, I have lived in a middle-class bubble: after an education for the

right profession came stable and well-paying jobs, a nucleus family, houses,

cars, hobbies, etc. A few anesthesia at the dentists' and the epidural when my

wife went into labor smelled nothing fishy. Whatever happened in the outside of

my comfortable cocoon, the US opioid crises, e.g., did not concern me.


With a couple of pages, the book confirmed the teachings of my history classes

and acknowledged (p290)


    Chairman Mao remains the only leader to successfully eradicate poppy farming

    and the opium trade in any country in the world, and he achieved it within a

    few years of coming to power.


It spent 99 per cent of the ink, however, on what I did not know.


My teachers never expounded on, for example, why people willingly drugged themselves in the first place, considering the inevitable disaster, and I had

thought it involve mostly the well-to-do back in the days. My dad was unlikely to

have firsthand experience himself but he mentioned that it was a medicine that

calmed the nerves and a sedative that helped sleeping.


The book explained that opium, in its history as long as the wheat, cannot be

separated from pain. Both an anesthesia and an anodyne, it is a main ingredient

from Helen's nepenthe in the Odyssey to an instant neuralgia relief and from

ancient mithradates to the indispensible painkiller on the battlefields of

every major war. Smoking opium was not addictive, however, for the Chinese

rice-farmers the way they consumed it. After a day of back-breaking work in the

field, the coolies smoked the stuff to alleviate pain and fend off waterborne



Ironically, it was the modern medical advancements, including the discovery of

the morphine (the alkloid in opium), diamorphine (heroin), fentanyl (synthetic

opioid 50 times stronger than heroin), and the hypodermic needle, that helped

unleashing the monster. Consuming heroin by injection, e.g., much more likely results in addiction. And government-led prohibitions in the early 20th century

backfired when it gave birth to huge black markets and organized crimes around

the world.


In 440 pages, the book strung fascinating factoids along the evolution of the

magic narcotic. Among them,


- Marcus Aurelius was one early opium addict and his Meditations therefore was

  almost certainly written under influence (or withdraw as he went to the

  campaign on the Danube without his theraic).


- Foods discovered in America, including the sweet potato, peanuts, and maize,

  sustained huge population growth in China but higher quality of life in Europe.


- Macao was leased to the Portuguese in 1557 because 800 virgins were selected

  for the Ming Emperor Jiajing. The medicine that his doctors prescribed to aid

  in the enormous task before him asked for ambergris, a substance from the

  intestines of the sperm whale, on which the Portuguese had a monopoly.


- The UN's attempts to eradicate Afghanistan's poppies have had the opposite

  effect: in times of war, food poverty and instability, opium production only

  increases. People may smuggle and deal in heroin to get rich; people farm the

  poppy to survive.


So after reading the book, I am much more informed about opium. The action plan

is to keep staying away. I have done well without it and don't need to expierence

it now, except of course in a medical event. Opioid abuse, unfortunately, is

part of the culture and I am content to be fully aware. Early in the book, the

author noted


    In the Avesta, the sacred texts of the early Persians, there are three types

    of medicine: the knife, the plants and the sacred word. Adherence to the

    latter offered the best chance of avoiding the former.


For anything to be sacred, it has to endure. The sacred word here, if I have to

guess, might simply be about a healthy lifestyle.

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閱讀 ()評論 (2)
7grizzly 回複 悄悄話 回複 '暖冬cool夏' 的評論 : Thank you, 暖冬, very much for reading and catching
'crisises,' the wrong plural for 'crisis.' One cannot be too careful when writing!

Thank you for 'Eschscholtzia californica.' I thought the california poppy's
scientific name was 'Papaver californicum,' which in fact is yet another
species of the Papaver family. How interesting!

Yes. Quite a few words in that book are archaic, only used a long way back.
Thankfully, Wikipedia still has an entry for theriac.

Enjoy the weekend.
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 "While the velvety, orange-petaled California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) is in the same family as the famed Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), their effects are nothing alike. What you will get with the California poppy is a gentle sedative and mild painkiller that is non-addictive."
I copied it from online to differentiate our Golden poppy from the Opium poppy, to correct its name:))
Do you mean crisis-- crises? A typo? There are a lot of new words that I don't know, both terminology and words like "factoid" (reminding me of "tabloid"). Cannot find the word "theraic" though.