Red Poppies, Blue Poppies

Nearly 3 years ago, the British Prime Minister David Cameron made his first official visit to China. It was early November, so like most British (or European) politicians, he was wearing a red poppy in his lapel to mark Remembrance Day.

The British Embassy staff in Beijing advised him not to wear it while he was in China. Poppies have a loaded message for Chinese, which has nothing to do with the bloodstains of Flanders fields. Poppies mean opium.

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, has flowers that are usually blue, although they can also be red, white, or somewhere in between. After they finish flowering, the seedpods swell. Left alone, they will eventually dry and crack to release a mass of tiny poppy seeds, but to produce opium, the poppy farmer carefully slashes the green seedpods. Over a day or so these wounds bleed raw opium, which is collected daily.

Traditionally the sticky resin was dried into cakes of opium, which could be used in many ways. It could be chewed or smoked – there’s an excellent description of the process of preparing an opium pipe in Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Dissolved in alcohol, opium became laudanum, which was used widely as a painkiller or soporific in the 18th and 19th centuries.

1024px-Illustration_Papaver_somniferum0

Purified into heroin, it was used by doctors well into the 20th century. I once gave a talk on the history of opium to a group of elderly women. Most of them had had their babies during the 1950s. One woman told me afterwards that the births she experienced using heroin were much less painful than the ones after it became illegal in 1952.

The Chinese prohibited opium much earlier than the rest of the world – but without success. There were edicts against it during the 18th century, and in 1799 the Chinese government banned its importation in any form. The British East India Company was the main supplier, and while the EIC officially withdrew from the opium trade in 1809, a mere 10 years after they were asked to do so, they didn’t stop making the stuff. Most of the illegal opium produced today comes from the same Golden Triangle first set up by EIC traders in the 18th century.

The trade really took off in the 19th century. Free traders, mainly British but also some Americans, smuggled it into Canton/Guangzhou, where it had a devastating effect – not just on individual users, but on the economy as well. One of the key figures in the trade was my old friend Walter S Davidson, who went to China as an opium trader in 1812. By the time he left in 1822, two firms dominated the smuggling trade, Jardine, Matheson & Co (still alive and kicking in 2015) and Dent & Co, WSD’s old firm.

In 1839 the Chinese renewed their efforts to keep out the opium traders. The Emperor sent his own picked official, Commissioner Lin, to Canton to crack down on the trade. In a grand public gesture, he seized the stockpiles of opium from the British merchants and destroyed the ‘foreign mud’ by mixing it with salt and lime and throwing it into the sea.

It was a grand public gesture, but it failed completely. Britain declared war, and China was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-42). In a humiliating peace treaty, the Chinese were forced to hand over Hong Kong Island, and open 5 Treaty Ports to foreign trade. When land sales opened on Hong Kong, Dent & Co bought the first block of land. They were also among the first to open in Shanghai.

The opium trade continued to flourish and foreign trade and foreign ideas steadily weakened in Chinese Imperial Court’s grip on authority. A second Anglo-Chinese War (1858-60) saw British and French forces reach Beijing, where amongst other things, they looted and destroyed the Summer Palace. Amongst the many items looted was a Pekingese dog that was given to Queen Victoria. Without so much as a blush, she named him Looty. There’s a good account of the affair here.

China is very much in the news at the moment. The Australian Government is passing a China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. An American warship has deliberately sailed within 12 nautical miles – the distance that marks the extent of territorial waters – of the Spratly Islands.

And President Xi Jinping has just been on a state visit to Britain. This has inevitably led to talk about human rights in China. Reporters at the BBC in particular have been effortlessly sanctimonious, and there is no doubt that in some matters, China’s record is dodgy – but then, as our ex-PM Tony Abbott so effortlessly demonstrated yesterday, nobody is perfect.

Wearing poppies, David Cameron, George Osborne, Vince Cable and Michael Gove drink a toast at a contract signing in China, The Guardian, 10 November 2012

Wearing poppies, David Cameron, George Osborne, Vince Cable and Michael Gove drink a toast at a contract signing in China, The Guardian, 10 November 2012

On his 2012 visit to China, David Cameron didn’t take his embassy’s advice, and wore his red poppy regardless, because he refused to kowtow to Chinese sensibilities. The word kowtow is Cantonese. It refers to a stylized prostration before the Emperor, where the subject kneeled, then knocked his head on the ground a specified number of times. It came into English usage following Lord Macartney’s 1793 Embassy to China. Britain wanted trade concessions, but Macartney failed to get them – allegedly because he refused to perform the kowtow.

Personally I think it might be a good idea to cut China some slack. In a culture that famously thinks that it is still ‘too early to tell’ what will be the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, the humiliations of the 19th century are still quite raw.

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3 responses to “Red Poppies, Blue Poppies

  1. Another ‘detail’ kids in the UK are not taught about their own history. So probably David Cameron hadn’t heard of the Opium Wars and the ‘opening up’ of China.

  2. Marion, brilliant ! Oh, I wish I could write as well as my former teacher. I am just so impressed with the way such important ideas are linked together in the depth of understanding for its various histories.

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