It is unclear how many Chinese smokers of opium in the early nineteenth century were what we might call addicts. Some certainly were, but given how much was being imported they could not have been many relative to the size of the empire. By the start of Daoguang’s reign in 1820, the nearly five thousand chests being imported from India each year were enough to support about forty thousand average habitual users empire-wide, or as many as one hundred thousand of the lightest daily smokers, so at most a few hundredths of a percent of the population. Furthermore, most users at this time seem not to have been terribly debilitated by opium—they led productive lives and were not outcasts from their families or professions. Indeed, opium smoking was a generally open, public act and there were many socially encouraged reasons to take part in it. Medicinal reasons aside—and there were dozens of those—businessmen smoked opium to focus their minds and help them make smarter deals (at least they imagined that was the effect). Students smoked it for the clarity it brought, thinking it would help them succeed on the civil service examinations. For the stylish it was a relaxant to be offered to guests after dinner. For the privileged with little to do, like the eunuchs of the Forbidden City or Manchu courtiers with few responsibilities, it was an escape from boredom.
Opium was, in other words, perfectly acceptable in respected circles. An aesthetic culture of gorgeously wrought pipes and other accessories grew up around its use by the wealthy, the very expense and extravagance of those tools elevating the act of smoking itself. The Chinese fashion for smoking, moreover, was quite profligate in comparison to the eating of the drug that went on in Britain; much was wasted in the process, and a smoker could easily go through an amount of opium in one day that would kill someone who ingested it directly. For those in more humble situations who couldn’t afford to smoke it themselves, employment in the opium trade still provided a chance for income as couriers and petty dealers.
From a purely economic standpoint opium had its advantages. Valuable and easy to carry (it was worth more than three hundred times its weight in rice), foreign opium was a very good business proposition for Chinese merchants in Canton. Being illegal, it could be turned around quickly for a profit in silver—within a few days in most cases, as compared to tea, which involved large cultivation and transportation networks, and generally took half a year or more to produce a return on each year’s investment. Since the Canton traders made more back from their customers inside China than they paid to the foreign suppliers, trading in opium also served as a convenient way for them to increase their own silver stocks, which they could then use to procure tea for sale to the foreigners. And though they had to pay bribes to officials, the illegal trade was otherwise, de facto, free from taxes.
There is no evidence that the moral exhortations of the Daoguang emperor caught on with the general public in any meaningful way. The widespread public opposition to opium on moral and public health grounds for which China would be known in the twentieth century was at this time entirely absent. Though perhaps the public’s resistance to imperial moralizing was only to be expected; in the early seventeenth century, the Ming dynasty had tried to suppress tobacco for reasons very similar to the Qing dynasty’s ban on opium—even to the point of ordering execution for anyone who cultivated or sold it—but they did not succeed. By the time of the Qing dynasty, those prohibitions were long forgotten and tobacco was an accepted staple of daily life in China. There was no reason the Jiaqing or Daoguang emperors’ edicts against opium should have been more likely to find success.
The Chinese of the early nineteenth century are often described as being uniformly insular and scornful of anything foreign, thanks mainly to an overly literal reading of the boilerplate language in Qianlong’s edict to George III where he claimed that he did not value foreign things. But this was not really the case. For wealthy urbanites in China, Western goods were all the rage by the 1820s—furs, glass, intricate clocks, cotton textiles, and other products of the Canton import trade, which were highly sought after by those with sufficient money to buy them. Far from encountering any kind of disdain for foreign objects, Chinese retailers in the early nineteenth century found that attaching the adjective “Western” to their merchandise was in fact the key to a higher selling price.
This consumer fashion for foreign products helps explain why the opium from British India became so popular in China. Against latter-day nationalist claims that the British came and forced opium down the throats of helpless Chinese consumers, there was in fact an existing system of domestic opium production in China already in place to compete with the import market at Canton (especially in the empire’s western and southwestern provinces). There were also separate avenues for importing the drug overland from Central Asia—and opium from all of those sources was much cheaper than the Indian opium the British brought to Canton. But opium was a luxury good, and its wealthy consumers weren’t looking for a bargain; they were looking for status. Fashionable users of the drug in urban China preferred the opium from British India (the Patna, with its East India Company seal of quality) largely because it was “Western” and therefore seen as far more sophisticated to buy and smoke.
By the late eighteenth century, when British traders began carrying Indian opium in meaningful quantities to Canton, they did so because they knew a market was already waiting for them there. They could not force the drug down anyone’s throat—indeed, they couldn’t even get themselves into the country; all they could do was to carry their opium to China’s southern coast and sell it to Chinese agents. Everything from there on into the Qing Empire was entirely in Chinese hands. Moving forward into the nineteenth century, the extensive smoking of opium emerged as an almost uniquely Chinese social custom, the Canton market for the drug growing to become, primarily for domestic reasons, the most demanding in the world. If opium was illegal in name, it was almost never so in practice, a fact as apparent to outsiders calling at Canton as to insiders within the Qing Empire. As one British dealer testified to a government committee in 1830, “Every now and then there is a very strong edict issued against the trade; but, like other Chinese edicts, it is nearly powerless. It imposes a little difficulty perhaps for the moment, and enables the Mandarins to extort from the dealers.”