Antique Opium Pipes, Accoutrements, and a Brief History of Opium

September 21st, 2015

We recently returned from a trip to Laos, where thanks to the help of a long time Laotian friend, we found three impressive Chinese antique opium pipes and a small collection of accoutrements. Authentic antique opium pipes and smoking paraphernalia have become a popular, albeit rare collectible. In this blog we are featuring these artifacts along with some background information on the history of opium.

Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipe

It is the Chinese who perfected the art of smoking opium and developed the classic opium pipe, made from a hollow bamboo stem and a saddle into which fits an earthenware pipe-bowl resembling a door knob designed to vaporize the opium over a specially constructed oil lamp. The creation of these handsome pipes and accompanying paraphernalia evolved into an art form, and the materials used in their construction included silver, ivory, horn, bronze, jade, and other semi-precious stones. In mankind’s eternal quest for bliss states, the material world of opium smoking reached artistic heights and ritualistic observation of an order seldom seen, from the pipes and accoutrements to the lavishly decorated opium dens.

Antique Opium Pipe
Chinese Opium Smoker

Ideally, the smoker would lie on his or her side, their head resting on a pillow, while an experienced assistant would heat a pill of opium over the lamp using the opium needle, and then place a pea sized ball around the hole of the pipe-bowl. He would then guide the bowl over the funnel of the lamp while the smoker held the other end of the pipe and inhaled. The assistant would use the needle to chase the opium around the bowl as it vaporized until the pill was fully spent. A moderate session would result in ten or so of these little balls being vaporized. Opium smokers typically report feeling enveloped by a warm, gently euphoric glow with all bodily discomfort and worldly concerns falling away into nothingness. Descriptions of opium withdrawal are rather less charming. The 19th century French poet, Baudelaire, likened opium to a woman friend, “…an old and terrible friend, and, alas, like them all, full of caresses and deceptions!” During the prohibition of opium in China and other parts of Asia, as well as in the West, most opium pipes and accoutrements were destroyed in public bonfires, making the remaining artifacts valuable relics of a bygone era. With demand for these curious artifacts greatly exceeding their availability, reproductions are common and sometimes presented as the genuine article – emptor cavete.

Antique Opium Pipe Accoutrements
Opium Smoking Accoutrements

Opium is the congealed sap extracted from the seed pods of the poppy, Papaver Somniferum. It has been suggested, based on archeological evidence, that its use could date back as far as 30,000 years, used by Neanderthals.  Ancient civilizations known to have cultivated the opium poppy include Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, India, Minoan, Greek, and Roman. As far back as 4000B.C a written reference to the opium poppy appears in a Sumerian text, where it is referred to as hul gil – the plant of joy.

Classical Greek physicians raved about the poppy as a veritable panacea of surprising efficacy in its ability to treat all manner of maladies, including venomous bites, respiratory problems, jaundice, colic, leprosy, kidney stones, melancholia, and of course pain. This enthusiasm for opium, which throughout various cultures enjoyed such names Milk of Paradise, Anchor of Life, and Destroyer of Grief, was shared by 17th century pioneer of English medicine, Thomas Sydenham, who wrote, “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.” Sydenham went on to produce his own formula for the opium drink known as laudanum, which by the 19th century was widely available at any English pharmacy. Served by opium producers in Turkey and in British India, opium imports for domestic consumption reached a staggering 280,000 lbs by 1860. The use of opium in the United States was also commonplace in cities at this time and its reputation escaped negative connotations until 1882, when a law was passed to restrict its use to licensed opium dens. As a side note, Thomas Jefferson is known to have cultivated opium poppies in his garden in Monticello.

Antique Opium Den
American Opium Den

One of the earliest references to the use of opium in China is in the form of a 10th century poem celebrating the effects of drinking opium. Whereas the Indian tradition was to eat opium, by the 17th century, the Chinese had discovered the art of smoking it, often mixing Indian opium with tobacco- two products under Dutch trade. By the late 1700s, the British East India Company controlled the Asian opium trade with Indian grown poppies. During the 1800s the recreational use of opium smoking in China had become problematic. In response, the Imperial Chinese Court banned its importation and use, but the appetite for China’s massive opium addicted population continued to be met by British smugglers. At this time, the opium trade provided 15-20% of the British Empire’s revenue, effectively making it the richest and most aggressive drug cartel the world has ever seen.

Antique Opium Pipe with Red Jade
Antique Opium Pipe with Red Jade

In 1839, Qing Emperor Tao-Kuang assigned one of his ministers, Lin Tse-Hsu to resolve the problem. Lin wrote to Queen Victoria seeking help, but received no response. Angered, the Emperor ordered that 20,000 barrels of opium be destroyed and a number of foreign traders were jailed. In turn, the British attacked the port city, Canton, starting the first opium war. Following defeat, the Chinese were forced to sign the treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which required that the opium trade continue unfettered and for a large settlement to be paid. In addition, five new ports were to be opened to facilitate trade, and China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain. In 1858, the second opium war was fueled by western demands to expand the opium market even more. Following a second defeat, the Chinese were forced to legalize opium and massive domestic production began. By 1906, China was producing some 35,000 tons of opium, equating to 85% of global production. It’s estimated that by this time, over a quarter of Chinese men were opium addicts. Initiatives during the early 1900s began to curb the well established habit that included all levels of society. Opium pipes and paraphernalia were burned, and smokers were required to register and be weaned off the narcotic. Still, the habit largely persisted and it was not until the communist takeover in 1949 under Mao that real change was realized. Ten million addicts were forced into treatment, dealers were executed, and poppy fields replaced with alternative cash crops.

As a result, opium production shifted from China into Burma, Laos, and Thailand, forming what came to be known as The Golden Triangle. By the beginning of World War II, taxes on the sale of opium throughout French Indochina made up 15% of the colonial government’s revenues. When global war disrupted the traditional maritime route of opium into Indochina, Opium Régie enlisted the help of Hmong farmers. As a result, opium production rose 800% within four years. By the end of World War II, France lost control of much of Laos to the Viet Minh and their protégés, the Pathet Lao. Two powerful Hmong opium brokers took opposing sides, one supporting the colonialist French, and the other the communists. The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 put an end to their reign.

Hmong Hill Tribe Cultivating Opium
Hmong Hill Tribe Cultivating Opium

America’s attempts to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia created what has been dubbed a “Cold War Opium Boom”. It has been suggested that CIA operatives trained Hmong guerrillas who had previously sided with the French, using their opium crops to fund operations. By the end of the Vietnam War, the production of opium in the Golden Triangle was second to none.  Decades later, of the three countries making up the Golden Triangle, Thailand has been the most successful in tackling the illegal production of opium through its crop replacement strategy, substituting poppies for medium to high value cash crops such as tea, coffee, kidney beans, apples and herbs. Today, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of illicit opium, followed by Burma, which accounts for 25% of global production.

In Laos, the Hmong and Mien hill tribe peoples embraced the cultivation of the poppy. The Hmong traditionally live 1000m -3000m above sea level in the mountains where life is hard, with few comforts, winter droughts, high winds, and freezing temperatures. The mountainous regions are ill-suited to most food crops or extensive animal husbandry. It is however, ideally suited to growing opium. They are a fiercely independent people who have survived centuries of conflict with the Chinese as well as face bigotry from the lowland inhabitants of SE Asia. Traditionally, accumulating wealth in the form of silver was paramount in Hmong society.

The Hmong of Xieng Khouang tell this myth about the origin of their association with opium:

“A long time ago, when the Hmong came down from China, they didn’t know how to grow opium. As they were passing through the Chinese side of what is called The Golden Triangle, they saw that the Burmese enthusiastically cultivated this crop but didn’t tend their fields well. Even so, the opium harvest provided a good income. Seeing the potential profit to be made, the Hmong learned to grow poppy from the Burmese. Initially, the Hmong worked just as carelessly as the Burmese, but later as they were migrating into Laos, they improved their farming methods. They perfected the art of cultivation under French encouragement, about a decade before World War II.”

Traditionally, the use of opium in Laos included women as well as men, and was common at all levels of society. If one could afford it, a refined and aesthetically pleasing Chinese opium pipe was used; otherwise a crude version based on the same principles was fashioned.  In the mountains, opium was often the only available form of medicine for treating diarrhea and pain arising from all sorts of maladies, from arthritis to flu, and was highly effective. Some limited its use to only treating medical problems. For others, lying down for a few pipes at the end of a hard day working the fields was a welcome reward. Some used opium recreationally occasionally, without becoming addicted, while others fell into a habit of 60 or more pipes a day, thereby becoming a burden on the family.  In Hmong culture, opium was always kept in the home, yet many chose not to partake, citing the fear of becoming neeng hao yeng, “one who is addicted to opium”.

Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipe
Antique Opium Pipes
Antique Hmong Opium Scales
Antique Hmong Opium Scales

Copyright sabai designs gallery 2015


Lee, P., Opium Culture: The Art & Ritual of the Chinese Tradition, Park Street Press, 2006.
Steve Martin, The Art of Opium Antiques, Silkworm Books, 2007

Sir William Osler, God’s Own Medicine

Joseph Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and Its Use in Laos, 1983

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Martin Booth, Opium: A History 1999