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Full Review
The Big Smoke: The Chinese Art & Craft of Opium
by Peter Lee
Lamplight Books 
Reviewed by Midevil, 11/21/2005

Peter Lee’s The Big Smoke presents the process of opium smoking, from planting seeds to smoking the prepared opium. Along the way, Lee offers a brief historical background ranging from the international opium trade of previous centuries to the current ban on harvesting and use. The book features copious black and white images to supplement the material. Each chapter is concerned with a specific aspect of opium smoking, such as preparing opium before smoking and the problem of addiction. Poetry suited to the atmosphere of opium smoking has been included as well, along with an appendix of colour photographs displaying paraphernalia and poppies.

The book contains essential notes for any opium smoker today. One of the general themes of the book is the argument that smokers are not out to turn their brains off, as with many other drugs. Lee notes that it is about “smoking less and enjoying it more.” There is a ceremony behind the preparation of opium before and during the act of smoking, much like rolling marijuana joints, only it involves a significantly more elaborate ritual. Unlike the rush of modern society that we find ourselves in, this tradition requires patience and skill. According to Lee, opium smokers do maintain these traditions even in the face of current bans.

For those individuals who have not tried opium or are interested in it but do not know where to start, Lee offers detailed approaches for preparing opium for smoking. From cooking raw opium to pipe manufacturing, he covers the issues in depth. There is very little room for error if Lee’s instructions are followed, which also include tips such as how to clean the equipment.

Lee also describes the downsides to prolonged exposure and the threat of addiction, negatives which he presents in a realistic light. Withdrawal symptoms are described using examples such as Emily Hahn’s The Big Smoke. Various addicts and users are interviewed to present their personal battles and successes with opium to the reader. Instead of viewing people as victims controlled by drugs, here the author argues that smoking opium is a choice, and keeping it a pleasurable art instead of an addiction is a responsibility to be laid at the foot of the user. Various methods of coping with addiction are examined as well.

Another assertion that crops up throughout the work is that opium should not be illegal. Lee notes that the traditional smoker approaches opium as an art, unlike the “reckless attitude and self destructive behaviour adopted by users of narcotic drugs today.” While the author argues at the beginning of the book that he will not discuss political issues concerning opium, in comparing opium to more dangerous legal drugs (ie. anti-depressants and tranquilizers), he cannot help but become political.

One of Lee’s strongest pro-opium arguments arises out of his discussion of the sexual performances of educated users. Women prefer men who are experienced opium smokers when it comes to sex, as with proper handling men are able to prolong intercourse. The drug also increases women’s libido. Lee makes sure to note that it is not the novice or the saturated user who provides better sex, but only the mildly affected experienced user. When compared to alcohol, opium increases the intense nature of sex without the harshness often encountered in drunken sex.

The reader may question Lee’s approach to pharmacology during the book’s detailed arguments for opium as opposed to, for instance, alcohol or tobacco. There is the assertion that opium “apparently” cures malaria, which may or may not be true, but the reader is not informed what strains, in what cases, or by what means. Smoking opium may work better than prescription drugs in therapeutic applications, but there is also the increased risk of cancer that arises from smoking. The author would have done well to expand on the chapter on pharmacology to include current studies about the side effects of habitual opium smoking.*

In addition to the lack of pharmacological material, it is disappointing that the sources are not properly referenced in bibliography or index format. While the author is clearly familiar with the subject matter, more rigorous handling of sources would have been useful for those wanting to delve deeper into the subject themselves.

Overall, The Big Smoke is an easy read that succeeds in accomplishing its purpose: to present the reader with an informed and detailed examination of the culture of opium smoking. For readers who do take up the practice in secret, the book might be a comfort by offering insights to questions which might naturally arise. It is also a well laid out manual for the beginner. The book is essential for both opium smokers and the curious minded.

*See websites such as for access to studies. Some articles can be downloaded for free.

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