Norman Smith

China’s reputation for being a country of teetotalers couldn’t be farther from the truth, says history professor Norman Smith, author of a recently published book called Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium and Culture in China’s Northeast.

“So many people think that the Chinese don’t drink and that the only popular intoxicant in Chinese history has been opium,” says Smith. Having attended many social functions in China where alcohol was served, he found it strange that the role of alcohol in Chinese culture has not been the subject of much research. Smith says the Chinese are now consuming alcohol at unprecedented levels due to rising wealth among the middle and upper classes. “It’s front and centre, at least in the northeast,” says Smith. “It’s unthinkable to go to a banquet or many other social functions without people drinking. If you say that you don’t drink, they’ll say, ‘Have a beer.’”

In the 1930s, drinking was seen as a modern way for families to bond, he adds, but when the Second World War started, attitudes toward drinking shifted. Alcohol came to be seen as a cause of social problems and a gateway drug to opium, cocaine, heroin and morphine in northeastern China. “All of those drugs were extensively consumed in that part of the world in the 1930s and ’40s,” says Smith. Although opium was criticized, it was widely used. Some cities in northeastern China had the highest rates of cocaine and morphine use in the world in those decades. “Most studies have linked that consumption with Japanese imperialism to denounce drug dealing as a part of Japan’s imperialist ambitions in China,” says Smith. However, he adds, opium consumption in China predated Japanese imperialism.

Opium imported by the British in the early 1800s was much stronger than traditional Chinese varieties, which contributed to the growing addiction problem. When the British stopped selling opium in the late 1800s, countries such as the United States, Korea and especially Japan stepped in to supplement, encourage or dominate the local Chinese trade, says Smith. Some Japanese opium dealers became quite wealthy, and this was seen as yet another reason that opium was bad for China. Opium was also criticized in Japan because of its detrimental effects on the workforce.

Addiction became a growing concern in the 1800s. “By the beginning of the 20th century, people were actively debating what addiction was in popular media,” says Smith. There were many words for addictions, which were often described as “hobbies.” Adding to the confusion, not everyone was affected by drugs and alcohol in the same way, so they couldn’t receive the same treatment for their “addictions.” Some people could use opium for decades without becoming addicted. Some experts saw morphine as a “dead end,” says Smith, while other health professionals used it to wean addicts off opium.

Many at-home treatments for addiction were available; some were real, some were fake and some were toxic. “There were articles in local newspapers about people being poisoned to death from remedies that were sold in stores,” says Smith. Consumers were also warned of drinking fake wines, including some made of water flavoured with pigeon droppings to mimic the taste of popular brands.

Some government-run treatment institutions were accused of torture, slave labour and even killing their patients. “Critics viewed them as places to go to die or be killed,” he says. Although most of these institutions were run by the Japanese, they often employed Chinese and Manchu doctors and nurses, many of whom were deeply committed to treating addicts. “The colonial environment in the northeast cast the institutions in an especially bad light,” says Smith, adding that many facilities were not well maintained because the Japanese colonial government was diverting funds to its military.

Today, drug and alcohol consumption are on the rise again. “And still now, as in Canada, there is no consensus on how to deal with addiction,” says Smith