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Anti-Opium Visual Propaganda and the Deglamorisation of Opium in China, 1895–1937

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image of European Journal of East Asian Studies

An ambiguous image of opium prevailed before the 1890s. At that time, despite opponents who often warned of the physical and moral damage it caused, the drug was considered to have positive aspects. In particular, opium was an expression of wealth and a wonderful way to socialise, and its analgesic properties made it the equivalent of a panacea. But from the last decade of the nineteenth century onwards, anti-opium visual propaganda succeeded in imposing the cliché of the smoker as a skinny man dressed in rags. This way of representing smokers went far beyond the limits of specialised anti-opium posters and publications: it became, indeed, almost universal. The use of skinniness to portray opium smokers contributed to creating a system whereby the opium smoker was tagged as a destitute person, of a low social position. This successful 'deglamorisation' of opium drove more and more people to turn away from the use of the drug. It is a crucial factor in explaining why consumption was much less alarming in the 1920s and 1930s than it used to be in the late nineteenth century.

Affiliations: 1: Université Paris 13;, Email:


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