Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews


Have foreigners shaped China’s history to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged, reaching back possibly millennia? Was Confucius’ most famous book, the Analects, inspired by entheogenic medicines imported from abroad, possession of which in the 1930s brought one before the firing squad in the name of Confucius?

In these book review essays by Isham Cook, foreign devils, old China Hands, eccentric expatriates, and a few Chinese tell an offbeat history of China’s last two centuries, with a backward glance at ancient China as told by Western mummies.


“An offbeat, erudite work of China-centered literary criticism….adeptly drawing out common themes or compelling threads that hint at larger trends in Chinese history.”—Kirkus Reviews

Confucius and Opium contains surprises sure to both delight and annoy any potential reader….Cook’s audacity is shaming.”—John Grant Ross, author of Formosan Odyssey

“The sniffy China-watcher clique back west resent Isham Cook for having the effrontery to pull at the threads of their narratives of what China should be to the world. Confucius and Opium will only deepen that resentment.”—Tom Carter, author of An American Bum in China

“Cook takes up the side of social life that is usually omitted from the history books, what are now unconventional points of view such as sex life, prostitution and drugs, and shows why they are quite reasonable.”—Colin Mackerras, author of Western Perspectives on the People’s Republic of China

“Isham Cook’s erudite, snarky, and very funny meander through books by and about Western expatriates in China serves up culture clashes that rarely see print.”—Hill Gates, author of China’s Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism.

“Candid, edgy, fearless, and unsparing, Isham Cook writes as though with a sword in this oddly titled compendium of book reviews. Books and China are clearly life passions for him—Cook is embedded in both—making him ideally placed to comment on other writers grappling to understand and provide insight into the country, its culture, and its people.”—Graeme Sheppard, author of A Death in Peking

Confucius and Opium serves as a useful resource for those who wish to read more distinctive accounts of a country that these days feels like it’s been written about to death.”—Quincy Carroll, author of Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Confucius and Opium‘s mildly dark, humorous and rebellious tone (a style I am particularly fond of) really sets Cook apart from the usual onslaught of popular books for the Western market by Chinese authors.”—Ivy Ngeow, author of Overboard

Confucius and Opium is an unmitigated delight…[It] reads like a better, more interesting version of [Jonathan Spence’s] The Chan’s Great Continent and leaves the reader eager to follow the trail of references that garnish every review.”—Arthur Meursault, author of Party Members

“The book slapped me awake and made me wonder about fresh ways to observe and write about a culture as intriguing, complex and so radically different from our own as China.”—David Leffman, author of The Mercenary Mandarin

Goodreads customer reviews:

“Starting with a discussion of politics and their effect on Covid-19, the War on Drugs, moral conduct, and sex work, the author moves on to a gripping run through of past and present fiction and nonfiction with the necessary geography, history, and cultural nuances for understanding why some works are worth the reader’s time and some should be kicked under the rug.”

“A very intelligent and detailed book about the history of medicines among other things. A little opinion bent but a worthy read.”

Amazon customer reviews:

“A groundbreaking and clever concept that I don’t believe has ever been done before in literature, and it works quite well as an edifying yet entertaining read that will appeal to both seasoned Sinologists and the uninitiated.”

“Current, lavishly documented and free as free a book written and published in China by a foreigner based in China can be, Confucius and Opium — a title that alludes to the most enlightened (morality, virtues, education and culture) as well as to the darkest (crime, prostitution, prejudice and censorship) of China — is a book whose friction causes discomfort to many, but it is also a honest and very enjoyable book, like every other Cook’s work.”

“The American writer Isham Cook is a dangerous eccentric because he might very well be telling us the truth — or at least trying to. An open minded reader, who doesn’t mind having their leg pulled a bit, will find the erudite Confucius and Opium a rewarding read.”



Preface:         Under Covid-19 Lockdown (book only)

Chapter 1      Confucius and opium

Chapter 2     Living the Taiping

Chapter 3     Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai wall came down

Chapter 4     Chungking: China’s heart of darkness

Chapter 5     Midnight in Peking and true crime fiction

Chapter 6     The expat and the prostitute: Four classic novels, 1956–1962

Chapter 7     Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

Chapter 8     The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Chapter 9     The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd

Chapter 10   The adorable expatriate eccentric

Chapter 11    Writing China in English: Recent novels

Afterword by Tom Carter (book only)


Now available on Amazon:

Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews


1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.