China

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 untold 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 in our era, over the past two or three centuries, did states begin turning our natural right to self-medicate into a question of morality, primarily as a new means of disciplining populations but also to justify the global incarceration of medicinal plants.

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 entirely 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, named 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 marketplace of the well-stocked 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. Two other prominent medicines whose effects somewhat overlap with those of opium and thus served similar purposes were already long established and each had a Chinese character naming it: alcohol (酒) and marijuana (麻).

Actually 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, and why it wasn’t as universally known as cannabis (marijuana). Many plants are constrained by the limitations of their habitat and their mutual dependence on local species. Other plants are ambitious, as it were, and aggressively settle in new habitats. They ride humans, who spread their spores via migration and trade. According to a recent history of opium by Lucy Inglis, Milk of Paradise, the poppy is thought to have been 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 used there as an effective topical analgesic, 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 then has it that Alexander the Great brought the poppy to Persia and India in the fourth century BCE, and from there it eventually found its way to China.

By Alexander’s time, legions of traders had been repeatedly crossing back and forth over all these territories on camel, horseback, and ship along pre-Silk Road land and maritime trade routes stretching from Europe to China, routes that were well underway by the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The remains of Chinese silk found in graves in Central Asia date back further, to the pre-Shang Dynasty era, the beginning of the second millennium. Caucasian mummies from the same time have been discovered in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, western China — likely Scythians from the Russian Steppes or Persia, bringing gold, exotic rugs, etc., eastward. We don’t know about all the perishables that were traded, but they surely included medicines. Medicines would have been both traded and brought by traders and shamans for personal or sacred use. One Tarim Basin mummy dating to around the eighth century BCE was dressed as a shaman and bore a sack containing two pounds of still-intact marijuana (Bennett).

But the historical record of opium’s spread makes no narrative sense and is woefully fragmentary. We must fill in the blanks. It would not necessarily have taken 4,000 years for opium to travel from Spain to Egypt, which were directly 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 other recent archeological finds was a pair of head carvings with distinctly Caucasian features near Xi’an in central China dating to the eight-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 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 Thomas Michael terms them (“Shamanism theory” 671). 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 39). However, they were basically pseudo-shamans, hired to prognosticate only what the king wanted to hear.

The Persian mages, by contrast, may have been regarded as the genuine article. To be given official residence in a Chinese state suggests that they had something to offer that couldn’t be had domestically. But they would have needed to demonstrate genuine magical powers, and the only thing that can do this, as I will argue, is psychoactive medicines, the entheogens in particular, the ingestion of which dramatically 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 have traditionally done, they would have disguised the identity of their plants or concoctions so as 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 sub-shamanic grade, too mild to really be effective entheogens. A stronger candidate is the powerful psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which is a very effective 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 may have been native to Bactria and the Hindu Kush highlands (eastern Afghanistan), stomping ground again 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). Joseph Needham claims the mushroom that 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) (121). 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 has no psychoactive properties. Or as Steavu suggests, this was “a strategic diversion to conceal from outsiders the secrets of Daoist initiatory mysteries” (355).

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 vision-producing and often highly toxic medicines, including cinnabar (硃砂), cat’s claw (雲實), black henbane (莨菪), peucedanum (防葵), pokeweed (商陆), calamus (菖蒲), motherwort (益母草), 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 used in combination with cannabis or ephedra (麻黄), whose chemical compound ephedrine is the precursor for manufacturing methamphetamine. Cannabis was formerly burned in censers in Daoist temples to spiritually intoxicate monks in their chanting. Also mixed with cannabis and wine was jimsonweed, i.e., Datura (曼陀罗), a potion dating back at least to the Han Dynasty. The experience of ingesting jimsonweed is universally regarded as traumatic, as 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 may have been confused with poisonous mushrooms, despite being less toxic than many of the aforementioned plants. While a more potent entheogen than cannabis and opium, psilocybin is not quite 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, as will be explained 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.

This brief survey illuminates some of the rich and varied medicinal practices of ancient China. Again, it is not a question of whether intoxicants or “drugs” were used. To pose this question 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 particular plants and medicines in given times and locales. Would Kongzi have resorted to any of the medicines available to him — and there were surely many — in the state of Lu in his time, the Spring and Autumn Period? 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 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. This may unsettle readers for whom opium represents the darkest aspect of Chinese history, who might wonder whatever could have prompted me to yoke it to its remote opposite, “Confucius.” My response is, can treating these two looming signifiers as has always been done, as unrelated phenomena, be anything other than an exercise in banality? What could possibly be added to the received accounts that has not already been said? On the contrary, how could the most debased and esteemed of Chinese symbols not somehow be mutually implicated? Don’t binary terms necessitate each other, or naturally nestle together like yin and yang? With all the emotions involved, don’t they threaten to collapse into each other?

Resistance to a more critical approach hinges on the fraught subject of “drugs.” I 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 TV ad showing eggs frying in a pan). The term “drug” was once neutral and synonymous with medicine, as is still the case with “drugstore,” the “Food and Drug Administration,” etc. 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 most people, medicines are licit and drugs illicit substances, period. 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 (and political). 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 medicines proper, at a higher dose are aphrodisiacal, at a higher dose still, shamanic (spirit-releasing), and finally toxic, poisonous. Not all medicines are aphrodisiacal but a great many are. 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). 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 (sorghum spirits) is typically 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 pain killers, much less mild analgesics such as aspirin, with euphoria, but in fact they are euphoric, and powerfully so. The key factor which distinguishes an intoxicant from merely a curative is its psychoactive effect, producing some kind of alteration in consciousness, typically from a state of normality to a state of euphoria. Analgesics work similarly, but from a different starting point: from a state of pain to a state of non-pain or normality. The distance between pain and normality is as great as 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 simultaneously 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.” Essentially, medicines taken at aphrodisiacal doses enhance (or return one to) 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 specialize in shutting down the organs and ending life, though many poisons are curative or aphrodisiacal at small doses (strychnine, belladonna). There are curative medicines which specialize in enhancing bodily functions or general immunity, such as 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 equally, of course, intoxicants, if not ideal for shamanic usage. Cannabis is not toxic at any known dosage, while opium is, though there are more effective poisons than opium.

The classic plant-based psychedelics — psilocybin, mescaline (peyote cactus), LSD (ergot fungus) — are of course far more potent than the intoxicants, indeed psychologically overwhelming and 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 actually true hallucinogens and are sometimes termed instead pseudo-hallucinogens: you are always aware you are perceiving hallucinations, however vivid and three-dimensional. With true, shamanic-grade entheogens, on the other hand — the DMT-containing ayahuasca brew, 5-MeO-DMT (the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad), iboga, fly agaric, jimsonweed — the hallucinations embody living spirits; they are perceived not as hallucinations but 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 by Richard, a fly agaric user and Douglas, a jimsonweed user:

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,” he 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. (Pinchbeck 220-21, 203)

Richard thereafter devoted himself to shamanism. Douglas was haunted by the jimsonweed demon for years until he finally exorcised 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. Mircea Eliade’s groundbreaking 1951 study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, is increasingly felt to be outmoded and misguided. Eliade correctly 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 regarded them dismissively as a degraded or decadent form of shamanism, rendering the art somehow too easy. The trance state, he believed, was properly achieved through bodily techniques alone — fasting, sleep deprivation, etc. 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” (142). 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 regularly used by shamans the world over (but which they tend to conceal from outsiders and noninitiates). 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.” His research directly followed from that. I should add that Eliade himself was reputedly an opium user.

If you are capable of having 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 precisely for this purpose. There is nothing easy about the use of medicines, as if they were some kind of shortcut. The experience of encountering extra-dimensions, which at potent doses causing 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 the medicines when viewed through the eyes of the plants. A purely 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. A 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 elaborate, targeted operation. Not just any humans will do; the plant seeks out those who are already seeking it, due to their greater spiritual sensitivity 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 human vehicle for sharing the plant’s 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 originally coined for the synthetic medicine Ecstasy (MDMA), the “love drug,” but applies equally to many of the plant medicines, notably cannabis and opium, which articulate empathy in various 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., as recounted in 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: to remind 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 outbreak of violence occasioned by a medicine was the nineteenth-century Opium Wars. Opium had long been in use in China, for a good millennium, possibly two or three, and was firmly entrenched in all strata of the population well before the nineteenth century, from “officials to servants and women,” and to rice farmers who “quelled 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, ch. 3).

As the standard account has it, England callously shoved opium down China’s throat to profiteer off the addicting of the huge population, and the quantity exported to China did jump dramatically over the course of the 1800s. But it’s not so simple as that, as Dikötter, Laamann and Zhou recount in Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China. The Daoguang Emperor was inclined against military conflict with England but was ultimately persuaded by a nationalistic Han faction in the Manchu-dominated Court. In any case it was less a conflict over morality or public health than of economics; the outflow of silver bullion being spent on the opium jeopardized the country’s economy. Moreover, opium wasn’t just imported; the crop was grown throughout China (though its quality was inferior to Indian and Turkish opium). One advantage over food crops was that the poppy didn’t deplete the soil as quickly. Domestic production of opium turned out to be central to rebuilding the devastated economy after the Taiping Rebellion.

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 eradicated and the medicine finally stamped out after 1949. The reason for its 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 equally grim in many other parts of the country. 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 many people have of addicts laid out in opium dens like living corpses originated as anti-drug propaganda, and is far off the mark. Though the opium medicine is addictive, it is not tolerance-building, which means users can regulate the habit with the same dose for more or less the rest of their life with little interference in their daily affairs (in stark contrast to stronger opiates). There were of course many people who were unable to control their addiction and who allowed it to take over their life. But 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 was actually a stimulant. Only at higher doses, after extended smoking sessions, was 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 regularly partook of it, like Emily Hahn of 1930s Shanghai notoriety, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of fifty-four books, and an opium addict; she was the concubine of the poet Zau Sinmay (邵洵美), whose industriousness — he founded a printing press and several literary magazines — was in no way diminished by his own lifelong opium addiction (until the Communists made him go cold turkey) (Grescoe). It should bear repeating that the medicine was in widespread use in the rest of the world as well, including Europe and the United States, until global efforts to ban it got underway following China’s lead, as production of the more potent opiates morphine and heroin accelerated. 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 more profitable compounds. 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 alternatively have been dubbed the Third Opium War, even if opium per se wasn’t involved. To maintain its grip on power the Qing Government finally began to align itself with reformists such as Kang Youwei, who was seeking to turn Kongzi’s 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). 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 was hardly 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 brutal 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 several months later in June. Two years later it was announced that after a second offense opium 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 143).

The lockstep developments of Confucianist revival and opium criminalization were two sides of the same coin. Confucianism could be more effectively institutionalized by defining itself against a national scourge, and opium suppression more effectively 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 subsequently an expanding cabinet of synthetic opioids, with no signs of diminishing a century later in our own time.

There is a fundamental distinction between opium, a moderately potent medicine comparable to cannabis, and its truly dangerous, tolerance-building derivatives. I have been to 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 when people are addicted to 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 initially 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.

The ultimate, macabre irony is that the most lethal opioids — fentanyl and carfentanyl — are 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 already 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 actually 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 2018 alone. Ingenious payback for the Opium Wars?

The solution, however politically unrealistic, would be to restore the marvelous medicine to legal, personal use. But if opium is so safe, you’re probably wondering, why does it continue to be outlawed virtually everywhere, while cannabis is undergoing legalization in more and more countries? The answer, paradoxically, is that cannabis is behind the times; it is merely 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. A recent New Yorker article by a writer who has a knack for being a step ahead of his time, Malcolm Gladwell, expressed these very concerns, though they may not sit well with cannabis enthusiasts. But all it will take is one too many young casualties to lead to public demands to reverse legalization of 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 in the West is loaded with meaning, but it’s more metaphor than man. “Confucius” stands for something profoundly felt, an indeterminate sentiment of age-old and august renown, a conflicting multiplicity of wise man notions, a classic empty signifier: Confucius say… [fill in the blank]. In Lionel Jensen’s words, “Confucius” stands for “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” 408). The key Jesuits in question, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, were themselves ambiguous figures and imposters of a sort. As Jensen tells the story, not long after their arrival in China they donned the rags of itinerant Buddhist monks, to blend in and attempt to gain converts in a borrowed language and religion, while biding their time. This got them nowhere, as Buddhists, it was 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 yet went through the motions until the time would be ripe to reveal “Confucius” as Jesus incarnate (Manufacturing Confucianism).

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) pushed the origin of the fellowship back to the Shang Dynasty (1556-1046 BCE). Zhang argued that the ru were originally identified by the character 需 (xu), which means “need” but has an earlier sense of “to wait” and by implication, “those who wait” (e.g., for the rain). Only subsequently was the character 儒 (ru) formed, from the addition of the semantic radical 亻(standing for “person”), to distinguish it from 需 and ultimately to 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 interpreted the text’s cryptic explanation of the fifth hexagram as code intended for “those who wait,” namely Shang-ethnicity practitioners of shamanism suffering under Zhou oppression, e.g.: “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 major text to exploit the power of writing to democratize its message through its own dissemination, as 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, by ancestry spiritual technicians, were relegated to engaging in empty rituals, along with scholarly or teaching duties. Even as early as the late Shang (12th-11th centuries BCE), royal divination, invocation, ancestral rites, etc., had become largely bureaucratized. 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 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 typically an animal mask (Jensen, Manufacturing 194). 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’ genealogy, as Zhang and Hu traced through their analysis of Zhou-era texts, was evident in their distinctive and odd 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 equally 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 (cited in Jensen, “Wise man of the wilds” 412). If Kongzi was indeed raised in such an environment, it could not have failed to have an effect on his impressionable young mind. Public rain dances, sacrifices and other shamanic ceremonies were typically 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, allegedly, this also gained them a reputation for licentiousness among moralists at court, all the 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 in the state of Lu to the eventual post of Minister of Crime. 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 the Republic. Indeed the goal was 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 produced, finally, a mere human, and a highly conflicted one at that, I believe, possibly with a profound psychic split.

If he 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, likely a notorious and provocative 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 both in the classics and 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 outsider status. His mixed feelings would have 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, apparently over his failure to convince the Duke of Lu to unite 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. There were public schools with roughly standardized content and probably widely varying standards, but no public market for books, no private authorship or means of independent publication (Chen). Just as the I Ching, which Kongzi is alleged to have greatly admired, democratized divination (in theory at least), it surely occurred to him by analogy that education could be democratized as well, through the circulation of books outside of official control. Meanwhile the best substitute was networking: traveling far and wide, picking up disciples and as many students as possible (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 outright 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. But 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 wholly different formulations of the same idea. Second, the contradictory formulations simply 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 or cherry-pick what they want. States and leaders obviously 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: a belief system 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, “Introduction”).

But 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, in particular, 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 (176).

We can sort out the relative importance of the Confucian virtues if we recognize that they are implicationally related. 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). Certainly primary to the Analects 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), faith (xin), etc., flow naturally and fall into place, rather than their having to be arbitrarily or mechanically cultivated.

The emphasis on inner cultivation effected an important conceptual shift from prior religious practices, geared solely 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 accommodates contraries. The contraries also bear out my contention that Kongzi was psychically split, intractably ambivalent, as we all inevitably 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 a 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” (252). 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 frequently but can only be conveyed by a turn of phrase, as it involves a conceptual jump, requiring you to spin your understanding around 180 degrees. 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 wordings, as if its importance could only be conveyed through repetition, beginning with the 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 the reader is asked to set aside his or her ego in order to place himself in another’s. Kongzi’s most famous aphorism 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 is achieved by the out-of-body experience, which dislodges consciousness and allows observation of the self from a wholly detached and dispassionate perspective — another way to characterize empathy. The gentler empathogens, like opium and cannabis, enable empathy by disabling resistance to new insights and perspectives, allowing the imagination to escape the hidebound self. It has often been observed that creative types don’t just spring up out of nowhere but are impelled by some drastic experience or psychically traumatic “wound.” The bizarre circumstances of Kongzi’s upbringing would certainly have been conducive to the fostering of a driven personality and a searching intelligence. But where did he specifically 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 connection between such medicines, culture, and philosophy.

Works cited:

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

Bennett, Chris. Cannabis and the Soma Solution (Trine Day, 2010).

Chen, Jingpan. Confucius as a Teacher: Philosophy of Confucius with Special Reference to its Education Implications (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990).

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).

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Trans. W.R. Trask (Bollingen Foundation, 1964; orig. pub. 1951).

Gladwell, Malcolm. Is marijuana as safe as we think? The New Yorker (January 7, 2019).

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

The I Ching or Book of Changes. Trans. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes (Princeton UP, 1967).

Inglis, Lucy. Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Pegasus Books, 2019).

Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke UP, 1997).

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

Keightley, David N. These Bones Shall Rise Again: Selected Writings on Early China (SUNY Press, 2014).

Mair, Victor H. Old Sinitic *myag, Old Persian maguš, and English “magician.” Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.

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

Michael, Thomas. Shamanism theory and the early Chinese Wu. Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Sept. 2015), pp. 649-96.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, Pt. 2: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality (Cambridge UP, 1974).

Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Chemical Adventure (Flamingo, 2002).

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).

Reid, Daniel P. Chinese Herbal Medicine (CFW Publications, 1987).

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)

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