Confucius and opium

Illustration by Ye Su (耶苏)


This is where the hundred drugs are to be found.
Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经), 4th c. BCE

He pierced his ears, making him able to understand the language of plants.
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism

Who dares to ration our relief?
Antonin Artaud, “The liquidation of opium”

The botanical context

If you suppose I’m proposing that the beloved sage was a man of depraved habits or had even been an addict, nothing could be further from the truth. But the idea is absurd not because a wise man, or a philosopher, would ever stoop so low. It’s absurd because drug abuse is a modern concept: to attribute it to the ancients is to commit a category error. For millennia mankind’s relationship with the plant medicines—a term I prefer to “drugs”—was never a moral issue. Everyone freely used whatever plants were available for multifarious purposes. Only over the past two or three centuries did states begin turning our natural right to self-medicate into a question of morality, as a means both of disciplining the population and securing the global incarceration of medicinal plants at the hands of the pharmaceutical cartels and their government lackeys.

If, on the other hand, the question is whether Kongzi (551–479 BCE), or “Confucius” as he known in English, lived at a time when the opium medicine was available and commonly consumed, the answer is probably not. However, we can’t rule out the possibility. The first recorded mention of opium in China dates back only to the eighth century CE (Dikötter, et al). Note that this was when the poppy was first identified and classified. Until something is named it doesn’t exist, even as it does; it may have been brought hither long before that but failed to stand out in the well-stocked marketplace of the Chinese pharmacopeia. Few took notice or those who did knew it by other names; the same compound may have been known by a variety of names. Opium’s distinctiveness may have been obscured by two other powerfully intoxicating medicines of strikingly different effects which could nonetheless have been confused with opium, each with a Chinese character naming it: alcohol (酒) and marijuana (麻).

It’s an enigma why opium, the king of medicines and a highly adaptable plant, was not more widespread in remote antiquity than it was. Many plants are constrained by the limitations of their habitat and their mutual dependence on local species. Others are ambitious, as it were, and aggressively settle in new habitats. They ride humans, who spread their spores via migration and trade. This was the case with the opium plant. “As it cemented its symbiotic relationship with humankind,” writes Kenaz Filan, the poppy “began developing higher concentrations of the alkaloids that were the secret of its power. In return, those whom it served returned the favor, and soon P. somniferum was spreading across Europe and into Asia.”

The poppy is thought to be indigenous to the area south of the Baltic Sea, but its first recorded use appeared in distant Spain in the sixth millennium BCE, already being employed there as an effective topical analgesic; some was discovered lodged in the bad teeth of a mummy. By the second millennium opium was widespread in Egypt, where it calmed crying babies (a common use of the opium tincture laudanum in nineteenth-century England and the U.S.). Legend has it that Alexander the Great brought the poppy to Persia and India in the fourth century BCE, and from there it found its way to China (Inglis).

By Alexander’s time, legions of traders had long been crossing back and forth over these territories on camel, horseback, and ship along pre-Silk Road land and maritime trade routes stretching from Europe to China, routes dating back as far as the pre-Shang Dynasty era, the beginning of the second millennium BCE. Gold and exotic textiles of sophisticated weave purchased Chinese silk, remains of which have been found in Central Asian graves of this era, as have storage vessels containing ephedra, cannabis and opium in a temple excavation at ancient Margiana in the Merv oasis (eastern Turkmenistan), the region where Caucasian mummies discovered in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang (western China) are believed to have originated (Barber). Psychoactive medicines would have been both traded and brought by eastward-bound traders and shamans for sacred or personal use. One Tarim Basin mummy dating to the eighth century BCE was dressed as a shaman and bore a sack containing two pounds of still-intact marijuana (Bennett).

A problem with the historical record of opium’s spread is that it is woefully fragmentary. We must fill in the blanks. It would not necessarily have taken 4,000 years for opium to make its way from Spain to Egypt, which were connected by water across the Mediterranean Sea, nor another one to two millennia to travel further east to Persia, easily traversed by land from Egypt, nor another millennium to travel to China. To the contrary, it’s not out of the question that the poppy had already been everywhere for thousands of years, lying fallow. It only lacked humans to recognize and cultivate it and shamans to spread the word. The only difference between opium and cannabis in this respect is that the latter had gotten a head start.

Among the more significant of archeological finds is a pair of head carvings with distinctly Caucasian features near Xi’an in central China dating to the eighth century BCE, and an even older Shang Dynasty-era Caucasian head sculpture discovered further east in Anyang (Henan Province). The heads were created to venerate or memorialize what renowned ancient China historian Victor Mair argues were professional Persian magi employed by the Qin and Jin states. Mair rejects the notion they were shamans, in the strict sense that is, Siberian tribal technicians of “ecstatic trance-flights,” a definition derived from Mircea Eliade’s research on shamanism and now generally rejected as too narrow. The Shang and Zhou dynasties did in fact employ shamans in an official capacity, “bureaucratic shamans” as sinologist Thomas Michael terms them (“Shamanism theory”). They were possibly recruited from outside the rammed-earth walls enclosing the cities, which swarmed with all manner of sorcerers, soothsayers, and both male and female shamans known as wu. Engaged in parallel activities but adapted to royal protocol, bureaucratic shamans “interpreted dreams, practiced divination, explained omens, chanted hymns and prayers, made astrological calculations,” and performed sacrifices (Mair). They are better described as pseudo-shamans, hired to prognosticate only what the king wanted to hear.

The Persian mages, by contrast, may have been the genuine article. To be given official residence in a Chinese state suggests they had something to offer that couldn’t be had domestically. But they would have needed to demonstrate magical powers, and the only thing that can do this is psychoactive medicines, the entheogens in particular, the ingestion of which thrust the user into contact with spirits and divinities. Simple curatives or remedies wouldn’t have cut it. The Persian magi must have brought with them far more potent elixirs to impress and dazzle the court, exotic and mysterious, mind-blowing medicines capable of generating overwhelming visions. And as workers of magic characteristically do, they would have disguised the identity of their plants or concoctions to increase their value and prevent their hosts from stealing or reproducing them. Hence the paucity of historical references to shamanic medicines, until they began to be catalogued in Chinese herbals.

Han Dynasty mural of the Queen Mother of the West sitting on a fly agaric mushroom (Steavu).

Opium would be a strong candidate if not for one significant disadvantage, shared by cannabis: they are both sub-shamanic grade, too mild to be effective entheogens. A stronger candidate is the powerful psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which can be an effective if erratic entheogen. The mushroom is thought to be indigenous to northern Siberia and travelled along another long-established trade route extending from Siberia to India, the same route that later brought Buddhism from India to China, Tibet and Mongolia. Alternatively, the mushroom was native to Bactria and the Hindu Kush highlands (eastern Afghanistan), stomping ground of the Scythians, who navigated mountain ranges in all directions on horseback. Though its provenance is unclear, it was a sought-after medicine. A Han Dynasty mural at Haotan (Shaanxi Province) portrays the legendary Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu) sitting on a spotted mushroom—the fly agaric (Steavu). The great Chinese science historian Joseph Needham argues in his monumental Science and Civilization in China that the mushroom the Chinese named the lingzhi (靈芝) or “numinous mushroom” was the fly agaric, which itself may have been known by the names of “toad mushroom” (蛤蟆菌) or “fly-killing fungus” (毒蠅蕈). Over time, perhaps due to its scarcity, the term lingzhi began to name a wholly distinct fungus that was native to China, the Ganoderma lucidum, which superficially resembles the fly agaric (it also has a large red cap but without spots) but lacks psychoactive properties. Or as Dominic Steavu suggests, this was “a strategic diversion to conceal from outsiders the secrets of Daoist initiatory mysteries.”

The powerful psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). The flat cap is the mature mushroom.

Over the succeeding centuries Daoist alchemists evolved numerous immortality elixirs based not on the fly agaric but a variety of vision-producing and often toxic medicines, including cinnabar (硃砂), cat’s claw (雲實), black henbane (莨菪), peucedanum (防葵), pokeweed (商陆), motherwort (益母草), calamus (菖蒲), and wolfsbane (烏頭), the latter a key ingredient in the concoction known as hanshi powder (寒水石), employed both for its psychoactive and aphrodisiacal properties in Daoist sexual practices. Some of these plants were taken in combination with cannabis or ephedra (麻黄), whose chemical compound ephedrine is the precursor for manufacturing methamphetamine. Cannabis was burned in censers in Daoist temples to intoxicate monks in their chanting. Also mixed with cannabis and Chinese wine was jimsonweed, i.e., Datura (曼陀罗), a potion dating back to the Han Dynasty. The experience of ingesting jimsonweed is universally regarded as traumatic, at least in our time, and though a powerful entheogen it was probably never popular as an intoxicant. Psilocybin-bearing mushrooms of the Gymnopilus junonius, Panaeolus papilionaceus and related species, collectively known as the “laughing mushroom” (笑菌), have long existed in China, but with no clear lineage of their use; they might have been confused with poisonous mushrooms, despite being less toxic than many of the aforementioned plants. In high doses psilocybin is a potent entheogen in its own right, in the same league as the fly agaric or other classic entheogens found in other parts of the world, such as iboga or ayahuasca, native to Africa and South America respectively, to be returned to below (Rätsch; see also Inglis; Reid; Schipper; Schultes & Hofmann).

Lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), long associated with longevity in Chinese medicine and a symbolic surrogate of the fly agaric mushroom.

What I have attempted in this brief survey is to illuminate some of the rich and varied medicinal practices of ancient China. To repeat my previous point, it is not a question of whether intoxicants or “drugs” were used. To pose this from a modern and thus moralistic vantage point is misguided. There was certainly widespread and extensive use by all social classes, limited only by the scarcity or expense of plants in given times and locales. Would Kongzi have resorted to any of the medicines available to him in the state of Lu in the Spring and Autumn Period of his time? Of course, he would have, as would have everyone else. If he had little to say about it, it’s because medicines were taken for granted. As for several mentions in the Analects, his best-known work, on the unseemliness of over-consumption of alcohol, a simple social breach like gluttony, what is being prescribed is moderation, not abstinence. The same strictures would apply to opium once the medicine gained traction and popularity in China.

Here I suspect that readers for whom opium represents perhaps the darkest episode of Chinese history, not merely the national bane of the drug itself but its weaponization by hostile foreign powers, might well wonder whatever could have prompted me to yoke the revered sage and his great spiritual legacy to an historical aberration almost two thousand years later. But are these two daunting signifiers—the forces of national cohesion and destruction respectively—really no more than remote and unrelated phenomena? On the contrary, how could the two most esteemed and debased of Chinese symbols not somehow be mutually implicated? The apparently straightforward discreteness of the two referents—a sage and a drug—is belied from the outset by their emotional charge. Indeed they seem to be intimately engaged, each defining itself in terms of the other: “opium” is not so much a drug as that which threatens to negate Confucius, by unraveling everything he stands for, Chinese culture and society; while “Confucius” is not so much a sage as a remedy which alone has the power to negate the threat of opium. Or more succinctly: Confucius is the antidote of opium. But if there were no opium, no great social evil, there would be no need for Confucius. The interesting thing about these two binaries is that they don’t in fact negate each other but rather necessitate each other; they are mutually inclusive and take on meaning only with the respect to the other. One might even say they nestle together like yin and yang.

Complicating our approach is the fraught subject of “drugs,” and before returning to Confucius more clarification is needed. If I may put it more boldly, I shall now proceed to abuse your illusions: you are being lied to and everything you know is wrong (to cite the titles of three books by disinformation guru Russ Kick). That’s the only way we’re going to be able to slog through the massive detritus of propaganda and indoctrination we have all been subjected to.

The Neijing Tu, a Qing Dynasty representation of the Daoist “inner alchemy,” showing a landscape mapped onto a head, spine and body (left). When turned upside down (right), the diagram depicts the lingzhi mushroom.

Entheogens and empathogens

We are living in the “this is your brain on drugs” era (the phrase comes from an anti-drug ad showing eggs frying in a pan). The term “drug” was once neutral and synonymous with medicine, as is still the case with “drugstore” and the “Food and Drug Administration.” Once medicine started to refer to drugs which work on the body and drugs to medicines which work on the mind, the words stopped having any connection to each other. To many people, medicines are licit and drugs illicit substances, period. Mandarin Chinese similarly refers to medicine as yao and to drugs as dupin, that is, poisonous products; I suppose most languages make the same distinction. “Drugs” has become a bastardized term, synonym for social scourge and emblem of personal disaster. The term is irredeemable; we can no longer enter into a discussion of it without dragging despair into the picture. The word serves no purpose but to confuse things at the outset. It’s also redundant: all drugs are medicines. I henceforth dispense with it.

The conventional classification of medicines into narcotics, amphetamines, depressants, hallucinogens, and so forth, based ambiguously on related chemistry or supposed effects, is likewise arbitrary and problematic (as well as political—clarifying things for law enforcement and the media). Classification is a scientific activity, and a natural impulse, but it obscures the true nature of medicines, their power and potential. Every medicine has a range of effects, a function of the dose. The full range of these effects can be displayed on a continuum, representing four stages of dose intensity:

The four stages can be understood both literally and figuratively. Medicines which at moderate dose are merely curative, that is medicinal, at a higher dose are aphrodisiacal, at a higher dose still, shamanic (spirit-releasing), and finally toxic, poisonous. Many medicines are truly aphrodisiacal, and I don’t just speak of Viagra. Some have a tonic or restorative effect, invigorating the body, stimulating the flow of blood and hence the appetites, including the sexual (e.g. cocaine). Medicines which boost perceptual sensitivity are aphrodisiacal as well in that they electrify the erotic imagination, which in turn incites the sexual drive (cannabis, opium, the psychedelics). And there are medicines which enable sexual expression by relaxing inhibitions (alcohol). Alcohol, by the way, has long been an important medicine in China. In itself it is a tonic but strong alcohol such as sorghum spirits is often infused with alleged libido-enhancing plant and animal products—snakes, lizards, centipedes, ginseng, wolfberries, and so forth—to create a medicinal concoction, yaojiu, doled out in shot glasses in restaurants. There are also less elaborate mass-produced versions such as Jinjiu, sold in any convenience shop in China today.

Jugs of medicinal alcohol at a Beijing restaurant.

In addition to being a real property of certain medicines, “aphrodisiacal” is a metaphor for pleasurable effects in general: the intoxicating and the analgesic. You may not associate painkillers, much less mild analgesics like aspirin, with euphoria, but they are in fact euphoric, and powerfully so. The key factor that distinguishes an intoxicant from a mere curative is its psychoactive effect, producing an alteration in consciousness, from a state of normality to that of euphoria. Analgesics work similarly, but from a different starting point: from a state of pain to that of non-pain or normality. The distance between pain and normality is as great as that between normality and euphoria. The alteration in consciousness in both cases is profoundly felt: the return to mere normality effected by an analgesic can be almost erotic in its intensity. To condemn people who pleasure themselves with intoxicants is to condemn people who medicate themselves to relieve pain. Those who have never experienced incessant, intractable pain may have difficulty grasping this, but it afflicts countless people. Carlyn Zwarenstein speaks eloquently of the opioid Tramadol, which she is dependent on for an unbearable chronic spinal condition known as AS (ankylosing spondylitis):

And now, taken a little out of myself, I can also see and feel compassion for other people’s struggles, am interested once again in their stories. For these few hours I have regained the essential human characteristic of someone who is well and flourishing: a healthy curiosity about everything that is not me….Peaceful, concentrated work is the best opioid side effect of all.

Medicines taken at aphrodisiacal doses thus either enhance or restore the joy of being alive, whether this involves the sexual or other appetites.

Jinjiu, a sorghum spirit infused with herbs traditionally used to counter male impotence: golden eye-grass, angelica, saline cistanche, wolfberry, milk vetch, horny goat weed, cinnamon, clove, and yam. The popular medicinal liquor is available at convenience shops throughout China.

Some medicines “specialize” in one or more of the four stages. Poisons shut down the organs and end life, though many poisons are curative or aphrodisiacal at small doses (strychnine, belladonna). There are curative medicines which enhance bodily functions or general immunity, e.g. the aforementioned lingzhi mushroom, or the traditional Chinese plant notoginseng (三七), one of the most effective of styptics, long used in Asia to heal traumatic bleeding suffered in battle (Reid); these two plants have no psychoactive effects and are not toxic at any known dose. Cannabis and opium are examples of medicines that are both medicinal and aphrodisiacal. The list of bodily remedies they can treat or protect against is long, and they are both, of course, intoxicants, if not shamanic-grade. Cannabis is not toxic at any known dosage, while opium is when eaten, though there are far more effective poisons than opium (the traditional Chinese method of opium smoking is not known in itself to be lethal).

The classic plant-based psychedelics—psilocybin, mescaline (peyote cactus), LSD (ergot fungus)—are yet more potent than the intoxicants, indeed psychologically overwhelming and even spiritually transformative, with lifelong effects possible after only a single dose. There is now burgeoning research on the benefits of psilocybin and LSD therapy in the treatment of depression, addiction and alcoholism (Pollan). But these medicines are “shamanic” only in a metaphorical sense. It is debatable whether they are true hallucinogens and are sometimes termed pseudo-hallucinogens: you are always aware you are perceiving hallucinations, however vivid and lifelike. With true, shamanic-grade entheogens, on the other hand—the DMT-containing ayahuasca brew, 5-MeO-DMT (Sonoran Desert toad venom), iboga, fly agaric, jimsonweed (datura)—the hallucinations embody living spirits; they are perceived not as hallucinations but as real entities. To put it another way: they are real and it takes the medicine to reveal them, as in the following amusing yet sobering accounts of a fly agaric user and a jimsonweed user, in Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head:

One night they ate three mushrooms each. An hour and a half passed. Absolutely nothing happened. “We were disappointed. I went into the kitchen to get a beer from the fridge,” [Richard] recalled. “I took out the beer, turned around, and across the kitchen there were three huge mushrooms staring at me—a five-foot-tall, a four-foot-tall, and a three-foot-tall mushroom. The mushrooms were red and yellow and they had little eyes and little mouths. They looked just as solid and real as me or you.” He stared at the mushrooms. The mushrooms stared at him. Finally, the largest of the mushrooms spoke to him. “Why did you eat us?” it asked.

“For three days, I had no idea what was happening to me. I remember, at one point, I was climbing a mountain, going up rock by rock, hand over hand. Then I came back to myself, and I was actually crawling along the sidewalk on my hands and knees.”…He had long conversations with friends, family members, and strangers, but later he found out that none of those talks actually happened.…After seventy-two hours, Douglas recovered his senses.

Richard thereafter devoted himself to shamanism. Douglas was haunted by the jimsonweed demon for years until he managed to exorcise it with the help of a Mexican shaman.

When taken at shamanic doses, or rather when shamanic-grade medicines are taken at the proper dose, something far more profound seems to be going on, as attested by the growing body of literature on the subject (Google “shamanism and entheogens”). What’s being cured is not the body but the human spirit. Renowned religious historian Mircea Eliade’s groundbreaking 1951 study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, is increasingly felt to be outmoded and misguided. Eliade identified the key elements of the shamanic performance: the out-of-body experience, involving an ascent to the heavens or descent into the underworld and back, and direct contact with the gods or spirits; and he acknowledged that medicines were often used—there are frequent references to fly agaric, jimsonweed, cannabis and other plants. But he dismissed the use of these substances as a degraded or decadent form of shamanism, rendering the art somehow too easy. The trance state, he believed, was properly achieved through such bodily techniques alone as fasting and sleep deprivation. And yet he wondered, “Many of the documents attesting the ability of shamans and sorcerers to fly fail to state how these powers were obtained; but it is quite possible that this silence is due to the incompleteness of our sources.” His sources were indeed incomplete. As critics have noted, Eliade himself conducted no fieldwork on the tribes he studied and had little acquaintance with the medicines that are in fact used by shamans the world over, but which they tend to conceal from outsiders and noninitiates. The fact he hailed from the staider generation of academics of half a century ago, isolated in stuffy university environments with a built-in bias against recreational “drugs,” accounts for this, and his research followed from it, though I should add that in his earlier years he was reputedly an opium user.

If you can have an out-of-body experience through fasting, sleep deprivation, or meditation alone, more power to you. The only convincing accounts I know of, however, all require ingestion of the shamanic medicines, which exist just for this purpose. There is nothing easy about the use of these medicines, as if they were a lazy shortcut. The experience of encountering extra-dimensions, which at potent doses causes the fragmentation of the ego or the feeling of dying and being reborn, can be terrifying and life-altering, as anyone who has ever ingested an entheogen knows.

It’s easier to grasp the relationship between the shaman and medicine when viewed through the eyes of the plants. An evolutionary explanation would see plants and humans in a symbiotic relationship, humans using the plants for the medicine and plants using humans to spread their spores to new habitats. I’ve mentioned opium in this regard, but another notable example is the psilocybin mushroom which, once confined to forests, is increasingly populating cities around the world. From the perspective of plant intelligence, however, it’s a more elaborated, targeted operation. Not just any humans will do; the plant seeks out those who are already seeking it, due to their greater spiritual receptiveness and curiosity. It may seem that the shaman finds the plant and imbibes the knowledge imparted by it, but it’s really the plant that finds and teaches the shaman. The shaman is the plant’s human vehicle for sharing its knowledge and intelligence to followers and initiates and in turn future shamans.

What exactly does this intelligence consist of? It cannot be reduced to a simple message or insight. Broadly speaking, it concerns the notion of humaneness and empathy (a key Confucian idea I will return to). There are also medicines which communicate empathy more subtly and gently than the powerful entheogens. These are the empathogens, a term coined for the synthetic medicine Ecstasy (MDMA), the “love drug,” but one that applies to many of the plant medicines, notably cannabis and opium, which enhance empathy in their own ways. (Those skeptical of the notion of plant “intelligence” might have a look at recent research by ethnobotanists on the evolving relationship between humans and psilocybin, e.g., Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.)

The war on medicines

Subjected to worldwide incarceration at the hands of states, pharmaceutical corporations and their tacit collaborators in the illicit substances black market, medicinal plants have a more urgent, existential message, that of reminding humans of their natural right to self-medicate. The Spanish conquistadors launched the first war on medicines 500 years ago against the Aztecs. The indigenous population’s sacramental use of the “flesh of the gods,” as the psilocybin mushroom was known, was incompatible with the Christian God and had to be savagely stamped out, with much loss of life. The next major outbreaks of violence occasioned by a medicine were the nineteenth-century Opium Wars. Opium had long been in use in China, for at least a millennium, and was entrenched in all strata of the population well before the nineteenth century, from “officials to servants and women” to farmers, who used it to quell the symptoms of “endless water-borne fevers and diarrhea that plagued the rice paddies, allowing a steady but unremitting pace of work, as well as alleviating arthritic pains and boredom” (Inglis).

As the received account has it, England callously shoved opium down China’s throat to profiteer off the addicting of the huge population, and China was righteously driven to fight back. But it’s not so simple as that. While the quantity of opium exported to China did jump dramatically over the course of the early 1800s, the foreign traders in Canton were primarily interested in the tea and silk trades and were loath to rock the boat with the Qing Government; there was also steep opposition in both Parliament and popular opinion in England to an imperialistic war over drugs. The Daoguang Emperor himself was inclined against war with England but was persuaded by a nationalistic Han faction in the Manchu-dominated Court. In any case, the ensuing conflict was less over morality or public health than economics: the outflow of silver bullion being spent on opium jeopardized China’s economy. It wasn’t just imported; the crop was grown throughout China, even if its quality was inferior to Indian and Turkish opium. One advantage over food crops was that the poppy didn’t deplete the soil. Ironically, domestic opium production turned out to be central to rebuilding the devastated economy after the Taiping Civil War (1850–64) (Dikötter, Laamann & Zhou; Platt, Imperial Twilight).

Draconian prohibitions against opium use began in the early twentieth century but failed to make much of a dent in the Chinese public’s consumption until the poppy was finally eradicated and stamped out after 1949; though not entirely, as Graham Earnshaw noted in rural Chongqing in the 2000s, with all the propaganda banners warning against the illegal growing of opium (The Great Walk of China). The reason for the medicine’s long popularity is not hard to fathom, when one considers the list of ailments and conditions it treated: dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, malaria, hunger, fatigue, and cold; it was a costive, respiratory depressant, antitussive, analgesic, antispasmodic, and febrifuge. The entire province of Guizhou only had a single public hospital before the 1940s, and the doctor-patient ratio was just as grim in many other parts of the country. Undermining public health by taking away people’s most reliable means of self-medication, in the name of so-called public health, was an inhumanly perverse and cynical move on the part of the state (Dikötter, et al).

The stereotype of addicts laid out in opium dens like living corpses originated as anti-drug propaganda and is far off the mark. Though the medicine is addictive, it is not tolerance-building, in contrast to stronger opiates like morphine and heroin, which means users can regulate the habit with the same dose indefinitely and with little interference in their daily affairs. There were of course many people who were unable to control their addiction and it took over their life. But so what? Because a minority of drinkers are alcoholic, we are hardly about to ban alcohol consumption, which causes greater bodily damage than opium with prolonged use.

Opium is in fact a stimulant. Only at higher doses, after an extended smoking session, is it a depressant. It aided rather than interfered with productivity. Rickshaw coolies needed it to get through their twelve-hour days. It was an effective aphrodisiac in the bedroom and a ubiquitous social lubricant. Intellectuals partook of it, like Emily Hahn (1905–97) of 1930s Shanghai notoriety, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of fifty-four books. “Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China,” she would later write (“The big smoke”). The poet Zau Sinmay (邵洵美) took her on as a concubine and happily initiated her. His own lifelong opium addiction in no way diminished his industriousness—he founded a printing press and several literary magazines—until the Communists made him go cold turkey (Grescoe). It bears stressing that the medicine was in widespread use around the world, including Europe and the United States, until global efforts to ban it got underway following China’s lead. Opium was banned not because it was bad for people but because there was big money to be made off the poppy, but only if production shifted to the more potent and thus profitable opiates and opioids, morphine and heroin. People needed to be weaned off their old-fashioned habit and introduced to the pharmaceuticals of the modern age.

At the start of the twentieth century, the decrepit Qing Dynasty found in both Confucius and opium a rallying cry, after the humiliations of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900–1. The latter conflict saw the third successful invasion of the Western powers to shore up their extraterritoriality and trade advantages; it could be dubbed the Third Opium War, even if opium per se wasn’t involved. To maintain its grip on power the Qing government began to align itself with reformists such as Kang Youwei, who sought to turn Confucian teachings into a national religion. Whatever one feels about this proto-fascist idealist, Kang advocated the emancipation of women and even proposed the idea of one-year contract marriages, at a time when men could still own female slaves.

There followed a series of novel and brutal experiments in Confucian-inspired state authoritarianism. In 1906 the Guanxu Emperor issued an edict prohibiting opium. In 1908 Confucianism became the official state religion. These and other desperate measures came too late and the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912. Use of the medicine wasn’t eliminated after the shuttering of the legal dispensaries and opium dens but merely pushed underground. The poppy continued to be grown across wide swaths of land, particularly in China’s southwest, the crops protected by warlords. Opium was fully criminalized in 1927, but this too had little impact and still more draconian measures were resorted to, including the first extrajudicial executions of opium users in 1932. The Nationalist Party’s moral purity campaign based on the Confucian virtues, the New Life Movement, was launched in February of 1934, and the Six-Year Opium Suppression Plan in June of that year. Two years later it was announced that after a second offense addicts “will be shot without further ceremony,” although in fact thousands around the country were already being rounded up and summarily executed, many merely for possessing an opium pipe (Dikötter et al). Yet at the very moment the regime was waging its war on drugs, it was profiting handsomely off a vast network of Chinese mafia collaborators supplying the drug to some four million licensed addicts. By the time of the Japanese invasion of 1937, this government monopoly had raked in USD $500 million in revenues (Peter Lee).

The lockstep developments of Confucianist revival and opium criminalization were two sides of the same coin. Confucianism could be institutionalized by defining itself against a national scourge, and opium suppression justified by exalting the nation’s oldest ethical teachings. Ironically, these developments took place as narcotic addiction and abuse was entering a new, more ominous phase on a much vaster, worldwide scale, first with morphine and heroin and later an expanding cabinet of synthetic opioids, with no signs of diminishing a century later in our own time.

There is a crucial distinction to be made between opium, a moderately potent medicine comparable to cannabis, and its truly dangerous, tolerance-building derivatives. I have seen West Hastings Street in Vancouver, Canada, where thousands of addicts reside, allowed to deal and shoot up openly without police interference, ravaged people staggering around like zombies. Some are addicted to crack cocaine or methamphetamine, others to heroin. The heroin is often cut with fentanyl, a cheaper opioid which mimics heroin’s effects but is fifty times stronger, leading to many overdoses as the potency of street doses is unpredictable. Even with prescription opioids the risk of overdosing is high, as tolerance builds and the margin of error between a pain-reducing and a lethal dose shrinks. Then when doctors cut off prescriptions, people who got hooked in the hospital due to a debilitating condition or accident find themselves entangled in the criminal activity of black-market pain relief. This in turn benefits Big Pharma, as the cycle keeps people perpetually addicted and consumption trends steady and growing.

A macabre irony is that today’s most lethal opioids—fentanyl and carfentanyl—are mostly manufactured in China. The Chinese Government has been tightening controls over their production and export, but the knowledge of how to synthesize these Frankenstein substances is out of the bag. We are no longer dealing with medicines fit for human consumption. If fentanyl is too potent to be used on the black market with any reliability, carfentanyl, 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, is outright terroristic. It’s an elephant tranquilizer and potential chemical warfare agent; street heroin has been turning up cut with it as well. The number of overdoses in the U.S. has been doubling each year since the opioid crisis took off in 2014: 72,000 in 2019 alone, estimated to be surpassed in 2020, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ingenious payback against the West for the Opium Wars?

The solution, however politically unfeasible, would be to restore the marvelous medicine to legal, personal use. But if opium is so safe, you’re wondering, why does it continue to be outlawed everywhere, while cannabis is trending toward universal decriminalization or legalization? The answer, paradoxically, is that cannabis is behind the times; it is in danger of following the trajectory opiates did a century ago. The present liberation of the cannabis plant from its longtime incarceration is of course good news. Nonetheless, the recriminalization of recreational cannabis in the not-too-distant future is a very real possibility, and we will be back where we started. As increasingly potent, and hence toxic, cannabis derivatives and synthetics are devised—Frankenstein THC—people will get sick or even start dying, from accident or injury if not overdoses. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who has a knack for being a step ahead of his time, recently expressed these very concerns, though they may not sit well with cannabis enthusiasts (“Is marijuana as safe as we think?” The New Yorker, January 7, 2019). All it will take is one too many young casualties to lead to public demands to curtail and control recreational use, and the pharmaceutical companies, to lock in the market for medicinal use, will happily oblige. In the future, the only legal marijuana you may be able to get your hands on will take the form of an expensive pill.

Kongzi the man

To return to “Confucius,” a name itself marking a return to its country of origin after centuries of European appropriation: a Latinization of the Jesuits’ peculiar designation, “Kongfuzi,” which was never how the Chinese referred to him, while the actual name, Kongzi, remains unknown in the West. That which is known is loaded with meaning, but it’s more metaphor than man. “Confucius” stands for something deeply felt, an indeterminate sentiment of age-old and august renown, a conflicting assemblage of wise man notions, a classic empty signifier: Confucius say… [fill in the blank]. In China historian Lionel Jensen’s words, “Confucius” is “a tropic presence or plot device, a narrative voice for anecdotes pertaining to ritual meticulousness and the sanctions of traditional authority…an artifact of our respective longings” (“Wise man of the wilds”). The key Jesuits in question, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, were themselves ambiguous figures and imposters of a sort. Not long after their arrival in China, as Jensen recounts in his magisterial Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke UP, 1997), they donned the rags of itinerant Buddhist monks to blend in and enlist converts in a borrowed language and religion, while biding their time. This got them nowhere, as Buddhists, they discovered, were despised by all but the poor. They then swapped their rags for the more fashionable robes of the Confucian literati, the order of scholars known as ru, which was to gain them access to influential connections. They mastered the language and went through the motions until the time would be ripe to reveal “Confucius” as Jesus incarnate.

The ru were long believed to have originated with Kongzi, but seminal essays by anti-Qing political activist and philologist Zhang Binglin (章炳麟), “The etiology of ru” (“Yuan ru,” pub. 1910), and following Zhang, renowned scholar Hu Shi (胡適), “An elaboration of ru” (“Shuo ru,” pub. 1934, both cited in Jensen, Manufacturing) push the origin of the fellowship back to the Shang Dynasty (1556–1046 BCE). According to Zhang, the ru were originally identified by the character 需 (xu), which means “need” but has an earlier sense of “wait” and by implication, “those who wait” (e.g., for the rain). Only later was the character 儒 (ru) formed, from the addition of the semantic radical亻(standing for “person”), to distinguish it from 需 and thus name the followers of Kongzi. The character 需 is associated with the fifth hexagram of the divination manual the I Ching (The Book of Changes), which is believed to date from the early Zhou Dynasty (1046–221 BCE). Zhang and Hu both interpreted the text’s cryptic explanation of the fifth hexagram as code intended for the audience of “those who wait,” namely Shang-ethnicity practitioners of shamanism suffering under Zhou oppression, i.e.: “Six in the fourth place means: [those of the Shang tribe] Waiting in blood. Get out of the pit” (insertion mine). The I Ching’s famous abstruseness reflects both the hermetic nature of divination and its veiled subtext: a politically subversive text. It was also the first text to exploit the power of writing to democratize its message through its own dissemination, since any literate person who got their hands on it could practice divination outside of royal protocol.

Employed by the Zhou court in a purely formal capacity, the ru, spiritual technicians by ancestry, were relegated to engaging in empty rituals, along with scholarly and teaching duties. Even as early as the late Shang (12th–11th centuries BCE), royal divination, invocation and ancestral rites had become bureaucratized. Archeologist David Keightley speculates that the oracle bones, those founding emblems of solemn import and which contained the first systematic Chinese writing, may have been read by no one apart from the scribes hired to engrave them. But genuine diviners and shamans were and had always been active outside the court, among the people, in “the wilds.” The independent shamans and the bureaucratic shamans were each other’s double. The former would have worn some variation of the universal shamanic dress in their rain and fertility dances, with the “cap and costume made of feathers of the turquoise kingfisher,” a “half-disc of jade [suspended] from their girdles,” and an animal mask (Jensen, Manufacturing). This Asian shamanic costume survives down to our time among Siberian shamans such as the Tungus, with their cap, belt, drum and caftan hung with iron disks and figures representing mythical animals, animal mask, and the ubiquitous feathers (Eliade). As for the latter, the bureaucratic shamans, their genealogy, as traced by Zhang and Hu through their analysis of Zhou-era texts, was evident in their odd and distinctive Shang clothing of wide sleeves, broad belts and high caps, a vestige of the Asian shamanic costume. By wearing ethnic Shang apparel mocked as clownish and effeminate (ru also means “those who are weak”), the ru engaged in symbolic protest right under the eyes of their Zhou masters. Also mocked was their obsessive punctiliousness in observing the rites. But if they attended to the rites with an excessive exactitude, it was the more discreetly to go through the motions and bide their time—imposters of a sort—until Shang culture would rise again.

References to Kongzi in various Warring States (475–221 BCE) and Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) documents describe him as having the “face of a dog.” One explanation for this raises the fantastical possibility (at least to modern eyes) that Kongzi wore a dog mask while conducting shamanic ceremonies in the wild (Jensen, Manufacturing). A more likely explanation has to do with the extraordinary circumstances of his birth. In the “Grand Historian” Sima Qian’s account (Ch. 47), Kongzi was conceived in the wild in a sacrificial ceremony involving public intercourse (野合) on a “numinous hillock” (尼丘) with a shamaness named Zheng Zai, and thereafter raised by her not in a house but a temple, his father having died not long after his birth. The alleged “face of a dog” referred to a facial deformity or protuberance, hence his given name, Qiu (丘) for the “mound” on his head (Sima Qian cited in Jensen, “Wise man of the wilds”). If Kongzi was indeed raised in such an environment, it could not have failed to influence his impressionable young mind. Public rain dances, sacrifices and other shamanic ceremonies were usually performed by female shamans known as wu (巫) rather than males, xi (覡), the bureaucratic shamans who officiated at court. A notable feature of shamanesses in China and the world over, and a key to understanding their allure and ability to hold followers spellbound, was their disrobing and going naked or bare-breasted. In Kongzi’s time, this also gained them a reputation among moralists at court for licentiousness, more so if they were known to have sex openly in fertility ceremonies (Schafer).

Standard, received accounts of “Confucius” as they have come down to us today depict a man of humble origins who through study and perseverance worked his way up the government hierarchy to the eventual post of Minister of Crime in the state of Lu. Posthumously through his teachings, his reputation and influence have turned him into a god-like figure, and as we have seen this was the explicit project of reformists in the late Qing Dynasty and subsequent Republican Government. Their goal was none other than to enlist Confucianism for authoritarian ends; it was even employed to justify which medicines were legally permitted. Today as well, Confucianism is promoted as a religion by various organizations not only in China but Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. But the historical context of Kongzi’s birth and life trajectory points to the reverse: supernatural beginnings of the most astounding character producing, finally, a mere human, and a highly conflicted one at that, with a profound psychic split.

If Kongzi was indeed marred by a facial deformity, it would have greatly exacerbated the sense of apartness he would already have been highly conscious of as the fatherless son of a shamaness, a most notorious one at that. The shocking specter of the shamaness copulating publicly during fertility rites, the instigator of the primal scene, was none other than his own mother. He grew up schooled in not only the classics but surely as well the practices of the folk religions and medicines of his home environment. Once employed in government jobs, his Shang ethnicity would further have reinforced his sense of being an outsider. His mixed feelings cut both ways: eager to sluff off his embarrassing and politically risky origins to advance his career, yet divided in his allegiance to the Zhou-dominated court in which he could never have felt at home, however able and ambitious he was. At the age of fifty-one he quit his government post, over, it’s assumed, his failure to convince the Duke of Lu to unite the state’s most powerful families. But perhaps he did so with great relief and other projects in mind, or then again with nostalgia for the mysterious and boundless environment of his youth, the wilds.

For the next sixteen years he engaged in the natural vocation of the outsider, which is to wander. His key preoccupation turned from government to education, something within his power to effect change. Even in that era there were public schools of a rudimentary sort with hardly a standardized curriculum in the modern sense, nor private authorship or means of independent publication and mass printing (Chen). Just as the I Ching, which Kongzi is alleged to have admired, democratized divination (in theory at least), it surely occurred to him by analogy that education could be democratized as well, potentially through the circulation of books outside of official control. The best substitute was networking. He traveled far and wide, picking up disciples and as many students as possible (eventually 3,000 by one estimate).

Compiled by followers after his death, the Analects is held to be the closest document we have to Kongzi’s own words. It consists of a seemingly haphazard assemblage of sayings, often juxtaposed without logical connection, many of them mutually contradictory, a problem compounded by spurious interpolations later added to the text. There is also the confused jumbling of audiences; it’s a multipurpose instruction manual for statesmen on proper governance, for households on conducting ancestral rites, and for individuals on proper living. If we proceed on the assumption that most of the Analects is an accurate compilation of Kongzi’s sayings, there are two explanations for the lack of systematicity. First, as is well known, he tailored his advice to his varying disciples according to their ability to understand, and this resulted in different formulations on the same idea. Second, the contradictory formulations represent Kongzi’s mind in action; they bespeak a recognition that systematization is itself a form of artifice, of distortion, by omission or suppression of contraries. Playing up contraries, on the other hand, achieves a more truthful representation of reality.

The philosophical congeries of the Analects has given interpreters leeway to make of it what they wish and cherry-pick what they want. States and leaders find attractive the Confucian observance of the rites (li), filial piety (xiao), and spiritual piety (xin). These virtues underscore obedience and respect for authority—children for their father, the wife for her husband, and citizens for their leader—ensuring the smooth workings of a nested system of control from the household up through the apex of the state or nation. From the perspective of power, it’s utopian in its perfection: an ideology that teaches people to police themselves and subordinate or align their personal agendas to those of society. As present-day Confucianists like to point out, it also accounts for the rise of the East Asian economies. The Confucian state is peddled as the answer to the problem of the state: “Confucian cultures celebrate the relational values of deference and interdependence….Might a contemporary Confucian ethic that locates moral conduct within a thick and richly textured pattern of family, community, and natural relations be a force for challenging and changing the international cultural order?” (Ames & Herschok).

It is my contention, however, that the very virtues modern states find so congenial, when adhered to for their own sake, stand for everything Kongzi was against. The rites are meaningless unless infused with more motivated principles such as benevolence, self-cultivation and knowledge. In this respect Confucian practice is more an individual, psychological endeavor than a set of social precepts to be imposed or followed. And in diametrical opposition to obedience and respect for authority, at least in the educational context, Kongzi prioritized the importance of study (xue) and questioning (wen): “Study widely with a clear purpose, question incisively and think for yourself” (Analects 19.6, my translation). The paramount importance of dialogical questioning, self-cultivation and intrinsic humaneness (benevolence) to a correct understanding of Kongzi’s philosophy is stressed by Chen Jingpan in his classic English introduction, Confucius as a Teacher. Ren (仁) or benevolence, he notes, is mentioned 108 times in the Analects, more than any of the other virtues. Benevolence “presupposes and ensures the importance and uniqueness of every individual. The full development of the personality of the individual is very much emphasized” in Kongzi’s philosophy.

We can sort out the relative importance of the Confucian virtues if we recognize that they are implicationally related. Confucius’ enigmatic contemporary, the philosopher Laozi, expressed this idea regarding a similar set of virtues in the Daodejing 38: “[W]hen the Dao is displaced, then there is de [moral character]. / When de is displaced, then there is benevolence. / When benevolence is displaced, then there is righteousness. / When righteousness is displaced, then there is ritual comportment. / As for ritual comportment, it is the thin edge of loyalty and trust, and the beginning of disorder” (trans. Michael, In the Shadows of the Dao). Primary to the Analects as well is study, i.e., self-cultivation. It’s the starting point for the life lived according to the Dao, as nothing can proceed without it. Through study (xue) and questioning (wen) one gains knowledge (zhi), wisdom (zhe) and finally benevolence (ren), i.e., humaneness, the highest good. From benevolence the remaining virtues of moral character (de), justice (yi), etiquette (li), filial piety (xiao), and faith (xin), flow naturally and fall into place, rather than their having to be mechanically cultivated or arbitrarily imposed.

The emphasis on inner cultivation effected an important conceptual shift from prior religious practices, geared toward ancestor worship, to relations among the living. Equally important, the life well lived was no longer just the concern of the privileged but of the common man, as attested by Kongzi’s preference for humble or “rustic” learners (野人), just as he himself had been (Analects 11.1). It has also been noted, counter to this, that Kongzi looked down on “common people” (小人) (6.11). But such contradictions do not present a problem once we understand that Kongzi’s capacious philosophy accommodated contraries. The contraries also bear out my contention that Kongzi was psychically split, intractably ambivalent, as we all are in our lived psychological reality, despite the masks we wear. He was not in the least god-like but only a man, yet a changeable and elusive one, who thrived on contradiction: an interesting man. He was therefore truly human, not merely in a humble but in a fully three-dimensional sense.

To return to ren, the word has been translated into a variety of English equivalents besides the usual gloss of “benevolence,” e.g., agape or Platonic love, perfect virtue, gravity, generosity, sincerity, earnestness, kindness, humanity, philanthropy; or in Chen’s formulation, “an earnest desire and beneficent action, both active and passive, for the well-being of the one loved.” All these terms capture a bit of the sense of another, related idea, that of empathy. There is no word for empathy in the Analects; the concept occurs repeatedly but can only be conveyed by a turn of phrase. It involves a conceptual jump, a reversal of perspective. Empathy is benevolence enlarged, by the imaginative act of putting oneself in another’s shoes, the vicarious experience of another’s perspective. This most pregnant of ideas appears throughout the Analects, often in almost verbatim rewordings, as if its importance could only be conveyed through repetition, beginning with the text’s very first aphorism: “Is it not the mark of a man of honor to not take offense when others fail to appreciate your worth?” And the corollary: “Do not worry about not being appreciated by others. Rather, worry about your not being able to appreciate them” (1.1, 1.16; see also 4.14, 14.32, 15.19). Here you are asked to set aside your ego in order to place yourself in another’s. The most famous of Kongzi’s aphorisms also gets at the notion of empathy: “Do not do to others what you do not wish others to do to you” (12.2).

Earlier we encountered the empathogens, medicines which promote or predispose one to empathy. Users of the more powerful empathogens (the entheogens) often report a fundamental change in their outlook on life, from one of habitual negativity to one of sheer gratitude at the fact of existence (Pollan). This can be achieved by the out-of-body experience, which dislodges consciousness and allows observation of the self—and equally others—from a detached and dispassionate perspective: the empathetic perspective. The gentler empathogens, like opium and cannabis, similarly enable empathy by disabling resistance to new insights and perspectives, allowing the imagination to escape the hidebound self.

It has often been observed that the creative character doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere but is impelled by some drastic experience or psychically traumatic “wound.” The bizarre circumstances of Kongzi’s upbringing would have been conducive to the fostering of a driven personality and a searching intelligence. But where did he get his conception of empathy from, and why was it important to him? Could his use of empathogens have been a factor? That he grew up in an environment saturated by folk medicinal practices including structured or sacramental use of a variety of medicines can be taken for granted. We only await future research establishing the connections between such medicines, culture, and philosophy in Kongzi’s life and times.

Works cited:

Ames, Roger T. and Peter D. Hershock, Eds. Confucianisms for a Changing World Cultural Order (U Hawai’i Press, 2018).

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Confucius. A New Translation of the Analects. Trans. Lin Wusun (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2010).

Dikötter, Frank, Lars Laamann & Zhou Xun. Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (U of Chicago Press, 2004).

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Grescoe, Taras. Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World (Picador, 2017).

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Jensen, Lionel M. Wise man of the wilds: Fatherlessness, fertility, and the mythic exemplar, Kongzi. Early China 20 (1995), pp. 407-37.

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Michael, Thomas. In the Shadows of the Dao: Laozi, the Sage, and the Daodejing (SUNY Press, 2015).

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Platt, Stephen R. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018).

Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (Penguin, 2018).

Rätsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications (Park Street Press, 2005).

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Schafer, Edward H. Ritual exposure in ancient China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 14 (1951) 1-2, pp. 130-84.

Schipper, Kristofer M. The Taoist Body. Trans. Karen C. Duval (U California Press, 1994).

Schultes, Richard Evans, & Albert Hofmann. Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use (Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1979).

Steavu, Dominic. The marvelous fungus and the secret of divine immortals. Micrologus 26 (2018), 353-83.

Zwarenstein, Carlyn. Opium Eater: The New Confessions (Nonvella Pub., 2016)

*     *     *

If you liked this post, you may also like:
Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope
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