In this series of articles we would like to explore the history of opioid use, some of the hidden reasons its use has become epidemic and how traditional Chinese medicine can help with the resolution of personal opioid addiction.
Opium was first introduced to China by Turkish and Arab traders in the late 6th century CE. Originally opium was used in drug combinations and compounds made by the Arabs and prescribed orally to relieve tension and pain. During this period opium was experimented with by Chinese physicians but seen to have “little worth, as would be expected, having come from barbarians”. The drug was used in very limited quantities in China until the 17th century at which point, the practice of smoking tobacco finally spread from North America, through Europe and into China. Opium laced tobacco smoking soon became popular throughout the country.
Chinese medical texts from this period describe the making and smoking of opium/tobacco/hemp products in detail and one author wrote, “After one has smoked opium tobacco twice, it is impossible to free oneself from it”. The same text went on to say, “Their (opium users) bodies and limbs become emaciated, the bodies’ depots and palaces (organs and tissues) dry out and one cannot stop until the body has been utterly destroyed”.
Britain and other European countries undertook opium trafficking because of their chronic trade imbalance with China. There was tremendous demand in Europe for Chinese tea, silks, and porcelain pottery, but there was correspondingly very little demand in China for Europe’s manufactured goods and other trade items. Consequently, Europeans had to pay for Chinese products with gold or silver. The opium trade, which created a steady demand among Chinese addicts for opium imported by the West, solved this chronic trade imbalance. This is possibly the first instance of Big Business (East India Trading Company) and Government (Great Britain) using the highly addictive properties of opium products for profit to the detriment of the common person and the common good.
Along with the slave trade, the traffic in opium was the dirty underside of an evolving global trading economy. In America as in Europe, pretty much everything was deemed fair in the pursuit of profits. Such was the outlook at Russell & Company, a Boston trading company whose ultra fast clipper ships made it one of the leaders in the lucrative American trade in Chinese tea and silk by trafficking in British opium.
British opium trafficking thrived, opium addiction increased, and opium importations grew rapidly during the first century of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). By 1729 opium had become such a problem that the Emperor prohibited the sale and smoking of opium. That failed to hamper the trade, and in 1796 opium importation and cultivation was harshly outlawed. In spite of such decrees, however, the underground opium trade continued to flourish.
The Chinese government continued to curtail the entry of opium into the country resulting in embargos and seizures of British ships carrying opium as cargo in 1839. The British, in the defining moment of “gunboat diplomacy”, began the opium wars. It is a fact that the opium wars are what began the so called “century of humiliation” in China and led to the Chinese eventually adopting Communism as its national political party.
Ya-P’ien was the proper Chinese name for medicinal opium. It was considered sour, astringent, toxic and warm in nature and used primarily for chronic diarrhea and premature ejaculation in males. Mixed with other herbs, opium was used for paralysis, pain in the joints, dizziness, malarial fevers and chronic cough. Opium was also said to have “A miraculous effect in cases of pain in the stomach and bowels”.
In modern Chinese medicine the herb Ying Su Ke is the dried opium poppy husk which nature is considered sour, astringent, neutral and toxic and is used for chronic cough, chronic diarrhea, vaginal discharge and any kind of pain especially in the sinews and bones. The truth of the matter is that there are many herbal medicines that are as effective for these conditions but do not have the toxic side effects of Ying Su Ke so the herb is learned in schools but not much used in clinical practice even in China.
In our next installment we will look at the continued refinement of opium into ever more effective pain killers with more efficient delivery systems, greater profits for the pharmaceutical industry and increased dangers of addiction.
Yours in good health,
Robert Kienitz, DTCM