Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade

December 20, 2023
Index Magazine

Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade

A color print shows a flowering poppy plant with an insect hovering above; Chinese writing and a seal are to the right.
1933.4.1246 Poppies and Insect (detail), from the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Jieziyuan Huapu), Part 3, Vol. 1, China, Qing dynasty, late 18th century (1782 edition). Ink and color on paper. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of the Friends of Arthur B. Duel, 1933.4.1246.

This digital resource is based on a printed booklet made available to visitors in the exhibition Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade at the Harvard Art Museums. We have reproduced and expanded it here to make it accessible to those unable to attend the exhibition.

This exhibition explores the entwined histories of the opium trade and the Chinese art market between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The first section examines the origins of the opium trade, the participation of Massachusetts merchants, and opium’s devastating impact on the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the Chinese people. Works presented include smoking paraphernalia, an opium account book, and photographs, along with mass media illustrations critiquing the use and sale of opium. The second section highlights the history of imperial art collecting in China and demonstrates the growing appetite for Chinese art in Europe and the United States after the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60). Artworks from Massachusetts-based private and public collections show the shift in taste at this time from export ceramics and paintings to palace treasures and archaeological materials, including ancient bronzes, jades, and Buddhist sculptures. The essays in this booklet detail who has benefited from the opium trade, who has been harmed by the drug, and the legacy of opium in U.S. museums. 

Who Has Benefited from the Opium Trade?

Opium was first banned in China in 1729 by the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1722– 1735) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). At that time, all trade with China was conducted through the Canton system, which restricted foreigners to the south­eastern port of Guangzhou (known to westerners as Canton). During the trading season, merchants resided in “factories” that served as offices and storehouses, and transactions were overseen by a select group of Chinese merchants.

Punch bowls depicting the international factories of Guangzhou were a popular souvenir among visiting traders and sea captains and were used to serve alcoholic concoctions at festive gatherings at clubs or at home. This porcelain example with enamel and gilded decoration depicts the flags of the Danish, Imperial Austrian, French, Swedish, British, and Dutch factories.

Tea, a major import from China, became the national beverage of Britain in the 18th century. In 1793, Britain sent an embassy to the Qing court to request more open trade and to identify possible British exports to counter tea imports. When the Qing emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–1796) dismissed these requests, the British East India Company (EIC) found a viable commodity in opium, which it had first sent to China in 1781. The company intensified production of the drug in India, causing opium exports to triple between 1775 and 1800.[1] Because the drug was illegal in China, the EIC relied on private merchants such as Jardine Matheson & Co. and Dent & Co. to transport opium to Guangzhou.

U.S. merchants entered the opium trade in the first decade of the 19th century. Boston firms Perkins & Co. and Bryant & Sturgis, collectively referred to as the “Boston concern,” were pioneers in the business. The Chinese merchant Howqua (1769–1843) became one of the richest men in the world working with the British EIC and U.S. firms like Russell & Co., which absorbed the Boston concern. Russell & Co.’s operations were run by John Murray Forbes (1813–1898), while opium sales were managed in China by his brother Robert Bennet Forbes (1804–1889), whose signature is visible on the bottom of the left page of this 1831 account book. 

In 1830, Augustine Heard (1785–1868) of Ipswich, Massachusetts, joined Russell & Co. as a partner, and a decade later he established his own firm, Augustine Heard & Co. He invited his four nephews to join him in the business, which flourished for a few decades. After declaring bankruptcy in 1875, Augustine Heard & Co. was absorbed by Jardine Matheson & Co., which survives today as Jardine Matheson.

Who Has Been Harmed by Opium?

Opium through the 20th Century

The opium poppy (papaver somniferum) contains the alkaloid morphine, which alleviates pain and stress and can produce feelings of euphoria. As early as the 10th century, Chinese medical texts described the oral ingestion of the seeds and the potent sap contained in the plant’s capsule as traditional treatments for diarrhea, dysentery, inflammation, and chronic cough.[2] At the same time, writers also warned against the potentially fatal effects of improper dosage.

In the 17th century, European traders introduced the smoking of opium mixed with tobacco to China, but the combination was eventually replaced with pure opium and was consumed using a specially designed pipe. Most opium pipes were made from bamboo, metal, and clay, but more expensive examples such as the one shown on the next page had ivory, tortoiseshell, or horn stems and were prized by collectors. In 18th-century China, opium was a symbol of privileged status and largely the domain of wealthy merchants and officials, who smoked in urban spaces like government offices, tea houses, and brothels or in their own homes. The advent of lower grades of opium opened the practice to middle and lower classes. In an era before analgesics and a society with little social mobility, opium alleviated the pain and despair of daily life.

Although opium smoking initially brought about a state of relaxation, the quantity needed to reproduce this effect in subsequent sessions rapidly increased, leading many people to make sacrifices to support their habitual use of the drug while their physical health declined. The resources needed to obtain enough opium to avoid the painful symptoms of withdrawal often ruined families financially. For many, addiction would eventually lead to destitution and even premature death. In spite of repeated bans, it is estimated that as many as 40 million people—or 10 percent of China’s population—were addicted by the end of the 19th century.[3] Individuals’ struggles with addiction were rarely recorded in this period, but few households escaped its impact.

Chinese immigrant communities in the United States were affected by the prev­alence of opium smoking as well. Anti-Chinese discrimination and violence rose following a wave of immigration to the western United States in the mid-19th century. Journalists, politicians, and doctors argued that the mostly young male laborers would spread disease and crime, weaken the economy, and endanger women, citing opium use and prostitution as evidence of these claims.[4] These campaigns culminated in the 1875 Page Act, an anti-immigration law primarily enforced against Chinese women, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which pro­hibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers and was not repealed until 1943.

Opium production and use continued in China through the early decades of the 20th century, but the failure of past prohibitions prompted officials to modify their strategies, treating those who used opium as victims rather than criminals. Pro­grams were enacted to register people who used opium with the state to regulate their supply, shops were reduced, and detoxification centers were opened. This more practical, compassionate approach parallels recent shifts in policy around today’s opioid epidemic in the United States. 

Opioids in the 21st Century

A 2018 study estimated that in 2015, the rate of opioid use disorder in Massa­chusetts among people 11 years or older was 4.6 percent—that is, about one in 21 residents. The study also found that this number was likely rising, especially among young people.[5] In 2022, there were about 2,300 opioid-related overdose deaths across the state.[6]

Opioids include prescription painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), and fentanyl, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. In the 1990s, opioids were aggressively and inaccurately marketed to doctors as safe and non-addictive, resulting in overprescribing and contributing to the emergence of an epidemic of addiction. Some patients, unable to renew or afford their prescrip­tions, turn to illicit drugs like heroin or fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. In the last several years, fentanyl has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in Massachusetts.

Today, opioid overdose deaths can be prevented by antagonist medications that were not available to those who experienced opium addiction in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sold as the nasal spray Narcan, naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose within five minutes of being administered. As of March 2023, Narcan has been approved by the FDA as an over-the-counter nonprescription drug. Free in-person Narcan trainings will be held at the Harvard Art Museums during the run of this exhibition. For details, visit harvardartmuseums.org/calendar. You can also sign up for a free online training through the Cambridge Department of Public Health by visiting cambridgepublichealth.org/services/opioid-abuse-prevention

What Is the Legacy of the Opium Trade in U.S. Museums?

The western trade of opium in China ignited the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60. At the end of the Second Opium War, British and French forces descend­ed on the Yuanmingyuan (or Old Summer Palace) in Beijing and pillaged the halls in search of trophies to sell or to bring back to Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III. This newspaper illustration captures the scene of plunder. Firsthand accounts describe men dressing up in Chinese women’s clothing while others used clubs to smash what they could not carry.[7] After the British and French camps gathered their stolen goods, the British set fire to the palace, which burned for three days. Chinese sources estimate that as many as 1.5 million objects were looted or destroyed during this episode, but the actual number is unknowable.[8]

A second episode of looting occurred during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), an anti-Christian and anti-foreign movement across North China in which Chinese rebels attacked missionaries and Chinese Christians, destroyed infrastructure, and laid siege to foreign legations in Tianjin and Beijing. In 1900, an allied force from Europe, the United States, and Japan interceded to free their captured compatriots. After the Boxers were subdued, foreign troops began indiscriminately ransacking Chinese palaces, temples, and stores between Tianjin and Beijing. Missionaries, diplomats, and Chinese and foreign civilians joined in the plunder or purchased spoils from local dealers. 

Loot removed from China in 1860 and 1900 constitutes one portion of Chinese art and artifacts in museums today. In the early 20th century, U.S. collectors and curators acquired artworks from a variety of sources. Some purchased directly from markets or stores in China, but many more relied on sellers with shops in New York, Boston, and other cities. Prominent and successful dealers like C. T. Loo (1880–1957) and Sadajirō Yamanaka (1866–1936) acquired items from networks of Chinese dealers, aristocrats and imperial family members who liquidated their collections to avoid seizure after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Chinese warlords who looted imperial tombs, American collectors who lost fortunes in the Great Depression, Chinese collectors fleeing Japanese occupation, and locals and foreigners in China who procured fragments from unprotected archaeological and cultural sites. Because records about these purchases were private—if they were kept at all—museums collecting in this period often did not know the provenance (history of ownership) of an object beyond the collector who donated it or dealer from whom it was purchased.

The reception and display of Chinese artworks in the early 20th century were shaped by popular opinion and world events. Chinese furnishings were considered symbols of taste and means in 18th- and early 19th-century homes, yet the super­intendents of cargo transporting these objects to the United States also derided what they perceived to be Chinese art’s lack of western technique and originality.

During the period of intense anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States in the 1870s–90s, art historical publications often neglected to discuss Chinese art at all. Exhibits in World’s Fairs also contributed to stereotypes of China as decadent and backward. China’s exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, for example, prom­inently included opium paraphernalia.[9] Racist attitudes toward Chinese people pervade the writings of many prominent early 20th-century art historians in the United States, even as they praised ancient Chinese art.[10]

Boston was an early hub for art historical research about Chinese art and culture. The first art history lectures in the country were given at Harvard by famed professor Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908). Langdon Warner (1881–1955), a research associate at the Fogg Museum, taught the country’s first courses in Asian art in 1912. The Fogg was established at Harvard in 1895, and by the early 1920s, director Edward W. Forbes (1873–1969) was advocating for expanding its Chinese holdings. In 1923, he sent Warner on an expedition that included visits to Khara Khoto in Inner Mongolia and Dunhuang in Gansu province. Warner’s removal of the artworks from sites in these regions left permanent scars on the archaeological landscape of China. Today, the objects serve as a reminder of the irreversible damage wrought by some pioneers in the Chinese art field.

In the early 20th century, a few Harvard alumni who had formed their own private collections gifted them to the Fogg Museum, providing the cornerstone of the teaching collection that is still actively used today. Ernest B. Dane (1868–1942) and his wife, Helen Pratt Dane (1867–1949), gifted their extensive collection of numbered Jun wares and later jades in 1942, and Grenville L. Winthrop (1864–1943) left in his 1943 bequest the ancient bronzes, jades, and Buddhist sculptures on permanent view in Galleries 1740 and 1610 of the museums, on Level 1. Alumnus and art theory professor Denman W. Ross (1853–1935) even brought his collection into the classroom, displaying Chinese ceramics, textiles, and metalwork in his studio as examples of superior craftsmanship. Ross, Warner, and later faculty inspired subsequent generations of Chinese art scholars and collectors.

In the early to mid-20th century, China saw the implementation of its first cultural property laws, though most were difficult to enforce and routinely flouted by Chi­nese and foreign looters, dealers, collectors, and museums. Today, U.S. museums actively acquiring Chinese art generally abide by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property—an international agreement that acquisitions should be limited to works that left the country of origin prior to 1970—as well as various memoranda of understanding between the United States and China. Every museum has the responsibility to undertake due diligence to establish the legal status of an object under consideration for acquisition, making every reasonable effort to investigate, substantiate, or clarify the provenance of the work of art.

To learn more about the Harvard Art Museums’ current collecting policy, visit harvardartmuseums.org/collections/collecting-policy.

[1] “A Century of International Drug Control,” in World Drug Report 2008 (New York: United Nations, 2008), 174.

[2] Diana L. Ahmad, The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007), 18. Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun, “Narcotic Cul­ture: A Social History of Drug Consumption in China,” British Journal of Criminology 42 (2) (2002): 317.

[3] “A Century of International Drug Control,” 177.

[4] Diana L. Ahmad, “Threats to Body and Behavior,” in Ahmad, The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century Ameri­can West, 36–50.

[5] Joshua A. Barocas et al., “Estimated Prevalence of Opioid Use Disorder in Massachusetts, 2011–2015: A Capture-Recapture Analysis,” American Journal of Public Health 108 (12) (2018): 1675–81.

[6] Massachusetts Department of Public Health, “Data Brief: Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths among Massachusetts Residents,” June 2023, https:// www.mass.gov/doc/opioid-related-overdose-deaths-among-ma-residents-june-2023/download.

[7] Robert Swinhoe, Narrative of the North China Campaign of 1860: Con­taining Personal Experiences of Chinese Character, and of the Moral and Social Condition of the Country; Together with a Description of the Interior of Pekin (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1861), 305–12.

[8] Jane Macartney, “China in Worldwide Treasure Hunt for Artefacts Looted from Yuan Ming Yuan Palace,” The Times (London), October 20, 2009.

[9] Zheng Yangwen, The Social Life of Opium in China (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 184.

[10] For example, Langdon Warner described the wall paintings of the Mogao cave temples at Dunhuang as “masterpieces” and justified their removal as protection from “three bow-legged Mongols” who entered the caves to worship, noting that one of them “placed his greasy open palm on a 9th Century wall painting.” Langdon Warner, The Long Old Road in China (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926), 141–42.