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Shanghai Reflections, Part Two: Talking Across Levels of Analysis

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today, the Points blog presents the second part of my (Joe Spillane) reflections on the recently-concluded meeting, “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History.”  Part one of these reflections considered the problem of talking across substances, while today’s comments consider the challenges posed by integrating levels of analysis.

We interrupted the first day of the conference to gather for a group photo near the meeting room where we had already completed the meeting’s first session.

Drugs and Drink in Asia Conference Participants

The session, which I chaired, was “Drugs and Empire”–and it highlighted some of the challenges in talked across levels of analysis at our conference.  Let’s begin with Zhiliang Su (Shanghai Normal University) and his paper, “Opium and the Progress of Asian History.”  Prof. Su offered something of a traditional narrative we would hear repeated several times at the meeting, one in which engagement with opium initiated a series of developments through which, “China lost both its sovereignty and conception and dignity and confidence” (from the translation by Pan Zhang, a Fudan University graduate student).  Opium, imposed on China by the British and later by the Japanese, is both the tool and symbol of imperial domination–the antithesis of personal and national sovereignty, with a decided focus on the latter.If Prof. Su’s discussion of opium and empire regarded the drug’s corrosive effects on national sovereignty as a given, it also treated the nation-state itself as a relatively unproblematic unit of analysis.  On the same panel, however, Weimin Zhong (Tsinghua University) offered a modest challenge to the narrative of opium imposition, observing that the “opium economy provided the Qing government with real benefits and support, and even became one of its basic means of survival.”  Here, Prof. Zhong makes the case that “China” is composed of governing structures at various levels, all of which interact to produce patterns of opium use and control. The nineteenth century Qing governments contended with opium in often contradictory ways, but they also faced local governments fully invested in the commercial trade (as in Shanghai and other port cities), and rural interests invested in the agricultural production of the opium poppy.  Prof. Zhong describes opium, then, as “both a tumor and a nutritional source” to China.  “Without the tumor,” the paper notes, “this giant empire might regain his health but could also die of the lack of nutrition”–in other words, opium both subverted and supported the Qing state.  It is the start of a more complex investigation of just what it is we talk about when we talk about the state and about imperialism.

That same sort of complicating purpose characterizes the third of these papers, James Mills’ “Cocaine and the British Empire: The Drug and the Diplomats at the Hague Opium Conference.”  Unusual for this meeting in both its focus on South Asia and on cocaine, Mills’ paper nonetheless speaks directly to the issues of empire, state, and substances.  Here, Prof. Mills considers the decision of the British government to introduce the issue of cocaine at the Hague Opium Conference in 1911.  Often regarded by historians as a delaying or obfuscating tactic, the British interest in cocaine, according to Mills, grew out of the concerns of colonial authorities over the drug’s use (particularly in India).  Here, Mills finds imperial motives to be somewhat more complex, certainly not reducible to the image of the British in this period as promoters of a massive flow of drugs throughout Asia.  In its specifics, the paper makes a small point–clarifying the motives for introducing cocaine into the Hague deliberations–but in the service of a much larger point, that historians simply must take care to avoid easy acceptance of traditional narratives of Asian drug history, particularly where careful empirical research is still needed.  Those narratives work with “agents” in the broadest sense–“China” “the British” and so forth.

Indeed, it would be helpful to have seen in the Zhong and Mills papers an ever closer consideration of the nature of the state itself.  To what extent was the state composed of conflicting or contradictory interests?  At what structural level did critical decision-making take place, and to what extent did actors at different levels perceive their own interests differently?  And how much room is there in our stories of state interest for culture, alongside economic interest?  These are questions rather basic to policy studies, but too often not given full attention in drug research (studies of alcohol prohibition, on the other hand, more often seem attuned to the basic elements of public policy research).  Happily, outstanding papers by Xiang Chi (“Body and the State: The Divergence and Polemics of Opium Abolishing in the Public and the Government in the Late Qing Dynasty (1895-1906)”) and Saeyoung Park (“Contradictions in the State Monopoly of Opium and Tobacco in Colonial Korea”) were particularly useful in exploring ways in which new cultural history might be brought to bear in creating a more sophisticated version of national policy behaviors.  Park, in particular, highlights the extent to which historical scholarship has too often been fixated on opium as an index of national sovereignty in a way that actually obscures just what the state was actually doing.

As of that’s not enough baggage for one conference panel, the first Shanghai panel also leaves us with an interesting question–to what extent can work at this level be integrated with work that focuses on smaller units of analysis, from community-level studies all the way down to explorations at the individual level.  To return to Park’s paper again for a moment, she rightly points out that all the talk of opium, national sovereignty and imperial interest has left us with precious little to say about the real-world networks of distribution, consumption and (eventually) treatment/cure interventions.  Can we talk across these levels of analysis in such as way that one does not void the other?  The Shanghai conference leaves me feeling cautiously optimistic, though convinced there is a great deal of work remaining to do.

On Friday, we’ll have a final word or two on the meeting.

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