Object: Opium Pipe

E/1955/18/102
Opium pipe
Dynastic China
Asia: China
prior to 1950
Materials: Wood, ivory, brass, and ceramic

Pipes of this type were used in Dynastic China to smoke the drug opium. Opium has been ingested as a medicine and painkiller for thousands of years. Sometime in the middle of the 17th century people also began to smoke the drug for recreational purposes. It soon became a major trade good for a number of colonial powers operating out of Asia, like the East India Company. Opium is made from the seed pod of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), and contains varying amounts of alkaloids such as morphine, codeine, thebaine and papaverine that are still used in various pharmaceuticals and street drugs today. Opium is a highly addictive narcotic and its use as a painkiller must be strictly controlled. The addictive effects of opium were well known as early as the 1830s when it was said that nearly 9 of 10 Chinese men were thought to be opium addicts. This widespread addiction led Chinese officials of the Qing Dynasty to attempt to eliminate the substance from their country and further restrict trade with Britain, leading to the Opium Wars. Pipes of this type were designed with special pipe-bowls that were meant to vaporize the drug, rather than burn it like other types of pipe. Opium pipe-bowls were usually made of ceramic and depicted traditional Chinese symbols of longevity, wealth, and happiness.

The following video gives additional information on the opium poppy plant. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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