The Opium Business
A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China
Peter Thilly


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Introduction: The Opium Business in Chinese and World History
chapter abstract

The introduction argues that the history of opium in China needs to be reexamined as a history of business-state relations, of political economy. It provides an extended overview of the chronology of opium's history in coastal southern Fujian from the 1820s to the 1940s, explores the challenges involved in studying an object of trade that was illegal and illicit, and explains the sources and method that underpin the study.

1 Local Foundations, 1832–1839
chapter abstract

This chapter explains the rapid expansion of the opium trade during its formative years, and maps out how British opium ship captains and Fujianese maritime lineages first came together to create a booming, illicit, offshore opium market in the mid-1830s. It argues that the opium business in Fujian was built on local foundations—the maritime trade industry and the lineage formation—and that the opium business expanded through the development of profitable relationships between powerful opium traders and Qing officials.

2 Negotiated Illegality, 1843–1860
chapter abstract

This chapter explains how the opium trade continued to expand after the Opium War in a realm of tolerated illegality. It explores how the extralegal offshore import market described in chapter 1 continued into the treaty port era, and how the normalization of opium within the new treaty ports served to entangle opium in other financial and administrative considerations. It argues that the taxation of opium in China was introduced through negotiations between opium traders and local officials before the Treaty of Tianjin formally legalized opium imports.

3 Drug Money and the Fiscal-Military State, 1857–1906
chapter abstract

This chapter explains how the people who bought and sold opium made themselves indispensable to the late Qing Self-Strengthening Movement. It examines the opium business in the age of legal opium, and argues that the tax-farming arrangements that characterized opium taxation supported the late Qing fiscal-military state in an uneven way, by providing essential funds while also embedding powerful opium traders in positions of unchecked power.

4 "Opium Kings" and Tax Farmers in the Age of Prohibition, 1906–1938
chapter abstract

This chapter demonstrates the continuity in opium regulatory and taxation practices before and after the prohibition edicts of 1906. It explores the opium prohibition bureaus and poppy tax collection agencies of the 1910s–1930s, and argues that local "opium kings" collaborated with the warlords and Guomindang to use the institutions of prohibition to collect revenue and accumulate profit.

5 New Spatialities in the Global Drug Trade, 1890s–1940s
chapter abstract

This chapter explains the transformed role of coastal southern Fujian in the reoriented global drug trade of the early twentieth century. It examines the smuggling of opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine out of China and into jurisdictions across South and Southeast Asia, before and after World WarI and the rise of new international regulatory agencies. It argues that the Fujian littoral reassumed its earlier role as a transshipment hub in the global drug trade through a combination of regulatory and technological transformations, and through new procurement and protection opportunities associated with the rise of Japan.

6 Opium and the Frontier of Japanese Power in South China, 1895–1945
chapter abstract

This chapter explains the role of Japanese citizenship for the people who bought and sold opium in early twentieth century Fujian. It explores the urban history of Xiamen through the conflicts that characterized the drug industry, and argues that a coalition of Japanese-protected businessmen established themselves at the nexus of power and profit before Japan formally annexed the port in 1938.

Conclusion: Conclusion: Following the Money, Today and in the Past
chapter abstract

The conclusion revisits the question of how the people who bought and sold opium navigated structures and exerted agency, and argues that the impact of this industry on government and business in modern Chinese history is likely more profound than existing sources can demonstrate. It then uses the contemporary concept of "narco-capitalism" to explore the possibilities for comparative study with other times and places of heightened illegal drug trading. It concludes with a call for more scholarship on the history of money laundering.