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


October 2022
316 pages.
from $30.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503628861
Paperback ISBN: 9781503634107
Ebook ISBN: 9781503634114

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From its rise in the 1830s to its pinnacle in the 1930s, the opium trade was a guiding force in the Chinese political economy. Opium money was inextricably bound up in local, national, and imperial finances, and the people who piloted the trade were integral to the fabric of Chinese society. In this book, Peter Thilly narrates the dangerous lives and shrewd business operations of opium traffickers in southeast China, situating them within a global history of capitalism. By tracing the evolution of the opium trade from clandestine offshore agreements in the 1830s, to multi-million dollar prohibition bureau contracts in the 1930s, Thilly demonstrates how the modernizing Chinese state was infiltrated, manipulated, and profoundly transformed by opium profiteers.

Opium merchants carried the drug by sea, over mountains, and up rivers, with leading traders establishing monopolies over trade routes and territories and assembling "opium armies" to protect their businesses. Over time, and as their ranks grew, these organizations became more bureaucratized and militarized, mimicking—and then eventually influencing, infiltrating, or supplanting—the state. Through the chaos of revolution, warlordism, and foreign invasion, opium traders diligently expanded their power through corruption, bribery, and direct collaboration with the state. Drug traders mattered—not only in the seedy ways in which they have been caricatured but also crucially as shadowy architects of statecraft and China's evolution on the world stage.

About the author

Peter Thilly is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi.

"Despite a vast literature on its eponymous wars, the social history of opium remains largely untold. Thilly's book shows us opium as crop, as commodity, as object of regulation, and as the source of great fortunes. We see the drug touching the lives of a huge range of people: farmers, smugglers, bureaucrats and 'opium kings.' It's a fascinating story, well-told, and rich in contemporary overtones."

—Michael Szonyi, Harvard University

"Peter Thilly's meticulous study of opium smuggling networks in coastal China is an invaluable addition to the rapidly growing literature on the nineteenth century opium trade, and it throws much-needed light on some under-researched aspects of the connections between drugs and capitalism."

—Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies

"Using an expansive array of evidence drawn together from collections on three continents, including rare materials from Chinese-language archives, Thilly offers insights into the everyday mechanics of what was largely an illegal and morally reprehensible business. His emphasis on how this trade worked sets the book apart from the many previous political and military histories of opium in China. It is a refreshing and valuable contribution to this literature, as well as a landmark history of illicit enterprise in Asia."

—Peter Gibson, Asian Studies Review

"Thilly takes a deep dive into the drug history of southern Fujian Province from the early 19th century up to the moment all drug commerce was wiped out in China with the Communist victory of 1949, weaving together a saga of narcotics, politics and commerce that involved colonial traders, warlords, gangsters, politicians and the vast network of Fujianese merchants, who operated the mightiest trade networks in East and South China Seas."

—David Frazier, Taipei Times

"Thilly skillfully weaves a narrative that dives into an impressive range of primary and archival sources on the local history of Fujian, while integrating them with the overall regional and global context. He highlights the contribution of opium, and illicit drugs in general, to the emergence of the modern state. He also shows how, in the process, the business acted both as a vehicle of income redistribution, bringing investment to otherwise marginal areas, while reinforcing existing systems of political economy and social hierarchy. Thilly lays out and describes these contradictions quite nicely."

—Xhing Hang, H-Water