Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places. Continue reading

The Films of Adrian Cowell: Opium stories from the Shan State to Hong Kong to Washington, DC (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome Hannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!

In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received  6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords,
Part Two of The Opium Series

Continue reading

China’s Drug War, Part I: The Mekong Incident


CCTV interview prior to execution. Caption: “Their pain (referring to the mothers of the dead bargemen) is the same as mine.”

On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen.[1] What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.


Xinmin.cn 湄公河惨案主犯糯康等四人在云南执行死刑 March 1, 2013

The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.

Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.

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Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

Many scholars of drugs and alcohol that are engaged in comparative work within plural linguistic environments are already aware of the problems of translation. The encounter with compilations of mistranslated signs and slogans that many of us may have had in our first language courses have constituted some of our earliest brushes with the pitfalls of translation. (E.g.: Bangkok Dry Cleaner’s sign: “Drop your trousers here for best results” or an earlier version of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan—“Eat your fingers off” 吃掉你的手指头.[1]) Translation, it seems, can be dangerous.


Identified as in Shanghai, but likely a sign for Beijing’s Ethnic Culture Park.

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The Travels of ‘The American Disease’ in China

Editor’s Note: We close our symposium, fittingly, with a post from Yong-an Zhang, Director of the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies and Professor of History at Shanghai University. He was a visiting fellow of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) at the Brookings Institution and a visiting professor of History of Medicine at Yale University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Zhang’s research interests include the social history of drugs and medicine, international drug control policy, drug diplomacy, and China’s drug control strategy. He is the author of Policy Choice in Changing Society: A Study on American Marijuana Policy (2009); Asia, International Drug Trafficking, and U.S.-China Counternarcotics Cooperation (2012); and co-author of China’s Urban Health Risk and Social Governance (2012).

In the fall of 1999, I was participating in a seminar on Modern Chinese History by Professor Cheng Shuwei in the Department of History at Northeast Normal University. This seminar led me to understand that opium and other drugs had played a very special role in Modern Chinese History. As a graduate student of American history, I became convinced that I needed to understand the role that drugs played in American society, and how the U.S. government, civil society, and the public responded to the world’s first global commodity. When I myself raised these issues, I suddenly realized that I could not find satisfying answers in general texts on American history. On weekends, I started going to the Scholar Bookstore to look for books that would help me. Then one weekend—to my great surprise as the book had not been there when I’d looked the previous weekend—I found a recently published book: Meiguo Jindu Shi (The American Disease: Origin of Narcotic Control).

Meiguo Jindu Shi (1999)

Meiguo Jindu Shi (1999)

The Chinese version was based on the third English edition and had been published by Beijing University Press that very year. After briefly browsing the contents, I knew it was the book I was looking for. I immediately bought it and finished reading it that weekend. To my mind, it is full of novel wisdom in almost every chapter, every section, and even each page. Professor Musto was familiar with all of the relevant archives and primary materials—nothing was recycled, nothing second-hand.

According to my perspective, the Chinese version of The American Disease should have been the first classic manuscript to be translated and published in China. It offers a comprehensive account of drug use and government drug policy from the 1860s to the 1990s; it explores the origins of narcotics control in international and domestic contexts; and it examines the interaction between politics, health, and ideology during the development of American drug policy. It casts the American concern with narcotics as “more than a medical or legal problem—it is in the fullest sense a political problem.” Furthermore, it explains the “energy that has given impetus to drug control and prohibition” as resulting from “profound tensions among socio-economic groups, ethnic minorities, and generations—as well as the psychological attraction of certain drugs.” More importantly, it opened my beginner’s eye to re-thinking the complex dynamics of American history, particularly medical history, social history, and constitutional history, through a new perspective.

Continue reading

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Tobacco in South Korea

FNN 20130109 ktg charcoal yonsei

Yonsei Law School Student at 2012 KT&G Charitable Distribution of Charcoal Photo: FNNews Staff Photographer

In the past, Milton Friedman has argued that companies have minimal ethical and social responsibilities outside of avoiding legal transgressions and satisfying their shareholders, but this position does not seem to have broad public appeal in corporate boardrooms or on main street today.  Definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have not remained static over time, but broadly, it’s founded on an understanding that “business organizations have societal obligations which transcend economic functions” or that there is some “obligation to work for the social betterment” (Epstein 1989, 585; Frederick 1995, 151). In practice, a wide variety of programs and policies can fall under the CSR umbrella, including: scholarships for underprivileged youth, mentoring minority students, donating proceeds for disaster relief, among others. However, see Whitehouse 2006, Carroll 2001, and Wood 1991 for the general academic consensus that there is, well, no consensus on the meaning or implementation of CSR.

Of course, few would suggest that all public displays of corporate social responsibility are disingenuous, but there are ways in which CSR policies and marketing can serve to balance or cloak the ethical exposures of a company. The 2008 greening of BP is one recent visible example. That BP chose a “green” theme that privileged environmental responsibility over many other possible social contributions addressed a significant vulnerability shared by companies in this industry. As we have seen with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, the environmental and human cost of securing energy resources can occasionally be spectacularly tragic and very public.  Continue reading

Java Coca and the Dutch Narcotics Industry: An Almost Forgotten 20th C. History of Drugs Story

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome the return of guest blogger  Toine Pieters, Descartes Institute for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University, who wrote memorably about the use of “sewage epidemiology” as a tool for tracking drug use a few weeks ago.  His post today is slightly more conventional, but no less cutting-edge.

This is a corrected version of the original post. Thanks to Hans Bosman and Toine Pieters for working out the edits and amendations. –eds.

The Great Seal of the Dutch East India Company

For most of us coca and cocaine production and distribution is synonymous with Latin American drugs cartels and Colombian drug lords. It is also common knowledge that Britain and other European empires ruled the waves during the 19th century opium wars and up to the 1920s did everything to frustrate the American-led war against drugs. Only those who read Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: from Medical Marvel to Modern Menace  (2000) may remember that by far the most successful alternative coca growing venture outside Latin America before 1945 was in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. Spillane briefly mentions that Dutch colonial coca production began to dominate the global markets in the1910s and crowded South American producers from these markets. It is not farfetched to argue that the Dutch were the drug lords of the interbellum and continued to play a prominent position in the global narcotics industry after World War II.

Up until recently we knew relatively little about the halcyon days of Dutch drug production and trade. But on November 8 the 82 year old former employee of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF), Hans Bosman, defended his thesis on ‘The history of the Nederlandsche Cocaine Fabriek and its successors as manufacturers of narcotic drugs, analysed from an international perspective’ at Maastricht University.

NCF factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 124

NCF Factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis

From the 1860s until the turn of the century Peru was the major source by far of the raw  materials for cocaine: coca leaves and later on also crude cocaine. The coca leaves were used in Europe and the US for the popular cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics. Cultivation of the coca plant was attempted in a number of countries outside South America, notably on Java and Ceylon. In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. Java coca had a high total alkaloid content but was initially rejected by cocaine manufacturers as a raw material. Java coca contained mainly secondary coca-alkaloids and the direct yield of cocaine from the leaves was low. Chewing Java coca leaves did not evoke the same energizing sensation as Peruvian coca. Continue reading

Desperate Mothers, Only Sons: The ‘Moral Reformation’ of China’s Internet Addicted Youth

Points Desp Mothers 1

Chinese gamer Sky takes an oath of good sportsmanship during the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China

I am writing this blog post from the 2012 World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China. This international competition for professional digital gaming, also known as e-sports, is an interesting setting from which to contemplate Chinese government efforts to draw strict divisions between nationally sanctioned e-sports and “unhealthy” and “addictive” Internet games.  Indeed, during the press conference prior to the start of the competition, one of the members of China’s General Administration of Sport shared a story about a conversation she had with the Vice Mayor of Kunshan city.  The Vice Mayor had noted that she originally intended to bring her son to the event, but her husband had forbidden it for fear that exposure to digital games would negatively impact his studies.  The Sport Administration official used this as an example of the image work still needed to train Chinese citizens to have the “proper” perspective on e-sports.  If only parents could understand the positive (the actual phrase she used was “sunny” or yangguang) impact of this particular form of gaming…. Compare this attitude to the concerned mothers depicted in these images drawn from the Chinese news media.

Points Desp Mothers 3

Points Desp Motheres 2

A mother wrestles her son to keep him from the Internet cafe

In the photograph above, drawn from the Chinese news media, a woman cries in the face of her despondent son,  despondent son responsive only to the stimulus of a game on a computer screen. In the photo to the right, a mother pins her son to the street to keep him away from an Internet café.  A third story in the news relates the tale of a mother who stabbed her own son in the leg with a knife because she could not stop him from running off to an Internet café to play games.  Rather than frame this incident as child abuse, the news anchor noted, “We can sympathize with the feelings of the parents, but we should not use disciplinary measures that are too violent.”  The frequency with which such acts of desperation appear in the press makes them seem almost natural, as the nonchalant response to this otherwise shocking incident of parental violence indicates.

A final portrait of maternal desperation that I would like to share with you is depicted in the 2007 film Net Mother.  This film, reportedly based upon true events, chronicles the valiant efforts of a handicapped mother who strives to connect with Internet addicted teens via instant messaging.  Having sustained terrible burns on her hands as a child, this mother overcomes her handicap and uses her story of struggle to convince young people to strive to overcome their own struggles with addiction.

Net Mother opens with a montage of scenes from China’s countryside: a farmer working the fields on his tractor, families and children enjoying an outdoor performance of classical Chinese opera, and women practicing traditional fan dancing in a park.  But the serene music that accompanies these opening shots takes a sudden dark and sinister turn as the scene switches to the dimly lit interior of an Internet café.  A young boy stands up woozily from his computer and stumbles out of the café, walking only a few feet before collapsing from exhaustion and, improbably, falling asleep directly on a set of train tracks in front of an oncoming train.  As unbelievable as this incident might seem, this is in fact yet another scene ripped straight from the Chinese media’s sensationalistic headlines about Internet addiction.

Sensationalism aside, what is most striking about this opening sequence is its vision of two competing Chinese cultures: there is, on one hand, the vibrant culture of Chinese tradition, and, on the other, the dangerous and foreign culture of the Internet café.  In the face of this threat, the figure of the desperate mother becomes a symbol of national moral crisis.  She can be seen as reaching out to her child, usually a son, in a frantic effort to restore tradition and protect the future of the nation in the face of corrupting foreign influences.

While the mother as symbol of the nation is not restricted to China, the image of the suffering and desperate mother has a particular resonance within Chinese history. Hsiung Ping Chen (1994) has noted that mothers in late imperial China often used their suffering as a device by which to manipulate and guilt their sons into achieving excellence.  The mother of opium commissioner Lin Tse-hsü (Lin Zexu) famously admonished her son that, “Only if you study hard and honor your parents by your success will my pains not be suffered in vain” (p. 39).  Today, the desperation of mothers in China may be compounded by the fact couples are restricted to one child, making that child what anthropologist Vanessa Fong (2004) has called the family’s “only hope.”  Fong notes that mothers thus invest everything in their child’s future, hoping that their children will grow up to be filial and successful enough to provide for them in their old age.

With reports that Internet addiction centers are using extreme measures such as shock therapy to treat addicts, mothers have also become the face of a different kind of treatment: moral reformation (ganhua).  Rather than framing addiction as a mental illness that brings shame to families by suggesting an internal or hereditary defect, moral reformation frames Internet addiction as an issue having to do with external forces such as proper education.  Young people are portrayed as having lost their moral compass and sense of duty to their families.  Notably, this kind of treatment was also used to address the problem of opium addiction. Dikotter, Laamann, and Zhou (2004) have called attention to the portrayal of “addicts as misguided human beings in need of help,” noting that “moral reformation” involved lectures, formal education and “wholesome leisure.”  Addicts were strictly disciplined in hope of  “correcting wrong ideas” and creating “morally good citizens.”

Today, as I watch the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in China, it is clear that e-sports is being promoted as a form of “wholesome leisure” that can lead to the creation of “morally good citizens.”  The question left in my mind, as I scan the audience, is where are all the proud mothers?

— Marcella Szablewicz

Points Forward: “From Addicts to Athletes: Youth Mobilities and the Politics of Digital Gaming in Urban China”

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a new installment in our “Points Forward” series, in which recent PhDs talk about their hot-off-the-presses research.  Our last Forward Pointer was Kerwin Kaye, a recent grad of NYU’s Program in American Studies, now an Assistant Professor (tenure track!!) in the Department of Sociology at SUNY Old Westbury; his article “Rehabilitating the ‘Drugs Lifestyle’:  Criminal Justice, Social Control, and the Cultivation of Agency” is forthcoming in EthnographyStepping into Kerwin’s big shoes today is Marcella Szablewicz.  Marcy received an MA in East Asian Studies from Duke University and a PhD in Communication and Rhetoric, under the advisement of Drs. June Deery and Tamar Gordon, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Communication and Media.  She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies.  You can find more of her work online at www.feiyaowan.com.

 1)    Nothing’s more popular right now than taking potshots at over-specialized, overstuffed, jargon-y academics.  Prove the haters wrong by describing your dissertation in terms that the average man in the street could understand.

“From Addicts to Athletes” departs from a simple premise: Recent statistics have shown that over three hundred million Chinese play Internet games. But while many young people argue that games provide free space in which to achieve necessary release from the pressures of society, the government and media often depict games as a kind of “opium for the spirit” that adversely affects Chinese youth.

Smells Like Opium for the Teen Spirit

Motivated to understand the logic behind these drastically different perspectives, in my research I trace the shifting discourses and practices of digital gaming in urban China, paying particular attention to the various ways that digital games are socially shaped —both how young Chinese describe and remember the importance of games in their social lives and how gaming is portrayed in government and media discourse. Based on ethnographic fieldwork spanning six years, I explore the mechanisms by which different games come to be constructed as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” and the corresponding processes by which the gamers who play them are portrayed as either “addicts” or “athletes.”  Despite belonging to the realm of so-called “free” time, I show that digital games and those who play them do not go unencumbered by political realities.  To the contrary, I contend that such constructions are rooted in larger cultural debates about patriotism and productivity, class and the crafting of the “ideal citizen.”

This notion of the ideal citizen is set against the backdrop of the precarious economic futures faced by youth in contemporary urban China. Continue reading

Call for Papers: Drugs and Drink in Asia

Editor’s Note: We’re posting a just-issued call for papers for a conference (“Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History”) to be held at Shanghai University through the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies.  As one of the conference organizers, I’d like to invite readers to recall Prof. Musto himself.  Doubtless he’d be pleased to see the Center hosting a gathering like this–readers might wish to take a look at David Courtwright’s affecting remembrance for more on David Musto’s life and career. JS 

Call for Papers– Drugs and drink in Asia: New perspectives from History
June 22-24, 2012, Shanghai University, Shanghai, China

The centenary of the Hague Opium Convention in 1912 marks a hundred years of the development of international controls on commercial flows in psycho-active substances.  This conference seeks to bring together those conducting new research on the origins and trajectory of that system in order to exchange recent conclusions and to address emerging questions.  The focus will be on Asian contexts given that these were at the heart of the controversies that drove the emergence of the international drugs regulatory system.  Among the questions to be considered are:

The Conference Context

1. What has recent research revealed about historic markets for psycho-active substances in Asia?
2. How far were Asian consumers of psycho-active substances driving these markets or being led by them?
3. What were the chief concerns of governments and administrations in Asia when seeking to control these markets and consumers?
4. How significant was the place of psycho-active substances in both Asian and imperial commercial networks?
5. Were representations of Asian consumers of psycho-active substances more varied than previously thought, and if so what does this tell us?

The event’s organisers are keen to encourage those conducting historical research into all substances that can be understood as psycho-active, from across the modern period.  While the focus is on Asia, comparative papers will be considered.  The preference will be for research that is being conducted or that has recently been published.  The objective is to bring together from around the globe all those currently tackling issues related to psycho-active substances in Asia before c. 1961.  To discuss proposals please contact Dr Yong-an Zhang zhangyongan@shu.edu.cn or Professor James Mills jim.mills@strath.ac.uk or Dr. Joseph F. Spillane spillane@ufl.edu.

Proposals for panels and papers of no more than 300 words per paper are welcomed by December 15 2011.  Please submit by email to zhangyongan@shu.edu.cn AND jim.mills@strath.ac.uk AND spillane@ufl.edu.  Those accepted will be notified by January 16 2012.  Participation will require the submission of papers of no more than 5000 words by April 30 2012.  The intention is to publish a collected edition of papers from the event.

The conference will take place in Baoshan Campus at Shanghai University, Shanghai and accommodation will be provided for all participants.  Some funding for travel may be available to post-graduate students and early career scholars.  The event’s major sponsors include the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare Glasgow; the Wellcome Trust; the University of Florida; the Alcohol and Drugs History Society; and a range of institutions at Shanghai University: the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies, the Center for Global Studies, the Graduate School, the History Department, and the College of Liberal Arts.

Dr Yong-an Zhang                                                                Professor James Mills
History Department                                                             CSHHH Glasgow
Shanghai University                                                             University of Strathclyde
99 Shangda Road                                                                  Glasgow G11XQ, UK
Shanghai, 200444, China                                                     www.strath.ac.uk/cshhh
zhangyongan@shu.edu.cn                                                    jim.mills@strath.ac.uk

Dr. Joseph F. Spillane
Associate Professor
Department of History
025 Keene-Flint Hall
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611-7320