Introduction

This website is a virtual museum dedicated to a little-known subject: the artistry of antique Chinese opium-smoking paraphernalia.

The controversy of the Opium Wars and the subsequent British opium trade with China
is still widely remembered today. What has been forgotten is that by the time the trade was banished, and opium smoking began to be effectively eradicated in China, it had already become an integral part of Qing dynasty culture, indulged in at every level of Chinese society -- from the lowliest rickshaw pullers to the court eunuchs within the luxurious chambers of old Peking's Forbidden City. And to satisfy the sophisticated tastes of China's noble, mandarin, and merchant classes, the paraphernalia and ritual of opium smoking reached dizzying artistic heights. Opium pipes, opium lamps and other accoutrements were crafted from the finest materials -- ivory, jade, silver, cloisonne and porcelain.

Beginning in the 18th century, opium accompanied the Chinese diaspora: first to the Chinese quarters of Asian cities, and later to the Chinatowns of the West, particularly North America, where opium smoking in the Chinese manner and with Chinese-made paraphernalia became fashionable among non-Chinese.

Once the drug was banned and its paraphernalia outlawed, these illicit items were heaped into piles and burned in public bonfires. From Shanghai to Saigon to San Francisco, the means to smoke opium were destroyed along with the drug itself. So few examples of these relics remain that most experts on Chinese art are blithely unaware of just how sumptuous and opulent this art form had become during its heyday.

We at the Opium Museum believe that, right or wrong, opium smoking was a part of the human experience, and as such, examples of its paraphernalia should be preserved for posterity. We are not advocating the use of opium. Our appreciation lies in the unique design and aesthetic genius of opium paraphernalia, as well as the ritual that evolved around its preparation and ingestion. In no other addictive substance did man's quest for mood-enhancement reach such artistic heights.

Steven Martin

Author, Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction (Random House; 2012)

The Art of Opium Antiques (Silkworm Books; 2007)

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