Opium is a narcotic drug prepared from the juice of the opium poppy, Pa paver somniferum, a plant probably indigenous in the south of Europe and western Asia, but now so widely cultivated that its original habitat is uncertain. The medicinal properties of the juice have been recognized from a very early period. It was known to Theophrastus and appears in his time to have consisted of an extract of the whole plant, since Dioscorides, about A. D. 7, draws a distinction between it and an extract of the entire herb derived from the capsules alone. From the 1st to the 12th century the opium of Asia Minor appears to have een the only kind known in commerce. In the 13th century opium is mentioned by Simon Januensis, physician to Pope Nicholas IV. , while meconium was still in use. In the 16th century opium is mentioned by Pyres (1516) as a production of the kingdom in Bengal, and of Malwai. Its introduction into India appears to have been connected with the spread of Islam.
The opium monopoly was the property of the Great Mogul of Persia and was regularly sold. In the 17th century Kaempfer describes the various kinds of opium prepared in Persia, and states that the best sorts were flavoured with spices and called theriaka. These preparations were held in great estimation during the middle ages, and probably supplied to a large extent the place of the pure drug. Opium is said to have been introduced into China by the Arabs probably in the 13th century, and it was originally used there as a medicine.
In a Chinese Herbal compiled before 1700 both the plant and its juice are described, together with the mode of collecting it, and in the General History of the Southern Provinces of Yunnan, revised and republished in 1736, opium is noticed as a common product. The first edict prohibiting opium smoking was issued by the emperor Yung Cheng in 1729. Up to that date the amount imported did not exceed 200 chests, and was usually brought from India by junks as a return cargo. In the year 1757 the monopoly of opium cultivation in India passed into the hands of the East India Company through the victory of Clive at Plassey.
Up to 1773 the trade with China had been in the hands of the Portuguese, but in that year the East India Company took the trade under their own charge. Although the importation was forbidden by the Chinese imperial authorities in 1796, and opium smoking punished with severe penalties (ultimately increased to transportation and death), the trade continued and had increased during 1820 – 1830 to 16,877 chests per annum. The trade was contraband, and the opium was bought by the Chinese from depot ships at the ports. The Opium War Up to 1839 no effort was made to stop the trade, but in that year the emperor Tao-Kwang sent a commissioner, Li.
Tsze-su, to Canton to put down the traffic. Lin issued a proclamation threatening hostile measures if the British opium ships serving as depots were not sent away. The demand for removal not being complied with, 20,291 chests of opium, valued at 2,000,000, were destroyed by the Chinese commissioner Li. ; but still the British sought to smuggle cargoes on shore, and some outrages committed on both sides led to an open war, which was ended by the treaty of Nankifig in 1842. The importation of opium continued and was legalized in 1858.
From that time, in spite of the remonstrance of the Chinese government, the exportation of opium from India to China continued. While, however, the court of Peking was honestly endeavoring to suppress the foreign trade in opium from 1839 to 1858 several of the provincial viceroys encouraged the trade, nor could the central government put a stop to the home cultivation of the drug. The cultivation increased so rapidly that at the beginning of the 20th century opium was produced in every province of China. The western provinces yielded and the other provinces produced nearly two thirds.
Of this amount China required for home consumption, the remainder being chiefly exported to Indochina, while more foreign opium was imported into China. Of the whole amount of opium used in China and about one-seventh came from India. The Chinese government regarded the use of opium as one of the most acute moral and economic questions which as a nation they had to face decided in 1906 to put an end to the use of the drug within ten years, and issued an edict on the 20th of September 1906, forbidding the consumption of opium and the cultivation of the poppy. As an. dication of their earnestness of purpose the government allowed officials a period of six months in which to break off the use of opium, under heavy penalties if they failed to do so. In October of the same year the American government in the Philippines, having to deal with the opium trade, raised the question of the taking of joint measures for its suppression by the powers interested, and as a result a conference met at Shanghai on the 1st of February 1909 to which China, the United States of America, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal and Russia sent delegates.
At this meeting it was resolved that it was the duty of the respective governments to prevent the export of opium to any countries prohibiting its importation; that drastic measures should be taken against the use of morphine; that anti-opium remedies should be investigated; and that all countries having concessions in China should close the opium divans in their possessions.
The British government made an offer in 1907 to reduce the export of Indian opium to countries beyond the seas each year until the year 1910, and that if during these three years the Chinese government had carried out its arrangements for proportionally diminishing the production and consumption of opium in China, the British government were prepared to continue the same rate of reduction, so that the export of Indian opium to China would cease in ten years; the restrictions of the imports of Turkish, Persian and other opium being separately arranged for by the Chinese government, and carried out simultaneously.
The above proposal was gratefully received by the Chinese government. A non official report by Mr. E. S. Little, after traveling through western China, which appeared in the newspapers in May 1910, stated that all over the province of Szechwan opium had almost ceased to be produced, except only in a few remote districts on the frontier.
The difficulties of the task undertaken by the Chinese government to eradicate a national and popular vice were increased by the fact that the opium habit has been indulged in by all classes of society, that opium has been practically the principal if not the only national stimulant; that it involved a considerable loss of revenue, which had to be made up by other taxes, and by the fact that its cultivation was more profitable than that of cereals.