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Article Dans Une Revue Working Paper Series Année : 1997

The British Imperial Addiction: Ideology and Economics and the Chinese Consumption of Opium


The concern here is with British representations of so-called Chinese characteristics. I shall discuss the bifurcated and incommensurate representations of Chinese opium-related practices in England and in the British colony of Hong Kong, and the contradictions that emerge from the ideological project of the purification and construction of the English national body in the British colonial metropolis, and the conflicting economic interests of the British imperial state in its "Chinese colonies". Ideological doubleness in terms of representation of health and the Chinese depending on whether the Chinese concerned were to be found in Britain's Chinese colonies (Malay Straits, Singapore, Hong Kong) or in the colonial metropolis - in London and in Liverpool. The major issue here is that of opium consumption and its function in the British imperial order. While in Britain from the early to mid-nineteenth century onwards the hitherto accepted and acceptable consumption of opium became taboo and constructed as an alien, indeed Oriental, custom unworthy of British Victorian citizens, in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, an official campaign of denial of the ill-effects of opium on the Chinese was waged for a century against English and Chinese abolitionists. Colonial medical health officers were at the forefront of the campaigns to maintain the consumption of opium and thus the financing of the British Empire's administration east of Suez. Thus the discourse of physical and mental differences could be used in England to negatively construct the Chinese so as to promote strategies of segregation or exclusion (as had occurred in the USA in the second half of the nineteenth century), while in the Colonies it could be manipulated to justify and maintain practices forbidden to citizens of Britain, but which were economically lucrative to the state machine in the Colonies. While it had become imperative to the modern British nation-state to construct a healthy national body, the sickness of the colonized body could be tolerated and indeed encouraged out of economic necessity. This is not to deny the position of ideology which for much of the period I deal with accorded with the precepts of late nineteenth-century scientific racism. However, whether in Liverpool (as local government functionary) or in Hong Kong (as colonial officer) the function of the medical health official was to bolster the state or local authorities. Thus while medical officers' reports tend to be more moderate than other official or media representations of the Chinese, they are nevertheless complicit in reproducing myths that sustain the idea of major biological difference as the causes of patterns of social behavioural difference.
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hal-00323827 , version 1 (23-09-2008)


  • HAL Id : hal-00323827 , version 1


Gregory B. Lee. The British Imperial Addiction: Ideology and Economics and the Chinese Consumption of Opium. Working Paper Series, 1997, pp.1-30. ⟨hal-00323827⟩
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