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The Travels of ‘The American Disease’ in China

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: We close our symposium, fittingly, with a post from Yong-an Zhang, Director of the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies and Professor of History at Shanghai University. He was a visiting fellow of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) at the Brookings Institution and a visiting professor of History of Medicine at Yale University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Zhang’s research interests include the social history of drugs and medicine, international drug control policy, drug diplomacy, and China’s drug control strategy. He is the author of Policy Choice in Changing Society: A Study on American Marijuana Policy (2009); Asia, International Drug Trafficking, and U.S.-China Counternarcotics Cooperation (2012); and co-author of China’s Urban Health Risk and Social Governance (2012).

In the fall of 1999, I was participating in a seminar on Modern Chinese History by Professor Cheng Shuwei in the Department of History at Northeast Normal University. This seminar led me to understand that opium and other drugs had played a very special role in Modern Chinese History. As a graduate student of American history, I became convinced that I needed to understand the role that drugs played in American society, and how the U.S. government, civil society, and the public responded to the world’s first global commodity. When I myself raised these issues, I suddenly realized that I could not find satisfying answers in general texts on American history. On weekends, I started going to the Scholar Bookstore to look for books that would help me. Then one weekend—to my great surprise as the book had not been there when I’d looked the previous weekend—I found a recently published book: Meiguo Jindu Shi (The American Disease: Origin of Narcotic Control).

Meiguo Jindu Shi (1999)

Meiguo Jindu Shi (1999)

The Chinese version was based on the third English edition and had been published by Beijing University Press that very year. After briefly browsing the contents, I knew it was the book I was looking for. I immediately bought it and finished reading it that weekend. To my mind, it is full of novel wisdom in almost every chapter, every section, and even each page. Professor Musto was familiar with all of the relevant archives and primary materials—nothing was recycled, nothing second-hand.

According to my perspective, the Chinese version of The American Disease should have been the first classic manuscript to be translated and published in China. It offers a comprehensive account of drug use and government drug policy from the 1860s to the 1990s; it explores the origins of narcotics control in international and domestic contexts; and it examines the interaction between politics, health, and ideology during the development of American drug policy. It casts the American concern with narcotics as “more than a medical or legal problem—it is in the fullest sense a political problem.” Furthermore, it explains the “energy that has given impetus to drug control and prohibition” as resulting from “profound tensions among socio-economic groups, ethnic minorities, and generations—as well as the psychological attraction of certain drugs.” More importantly, it opened my beginner’s eye to re-thinking the complex dynamics of American history, particularly medical history, social history, and constitutional history, through a new perspective.

Consequently, although reading Meiguo Jindu Shi was the first time that I paid attention to the history of American drug policy, my interest and curiosity in this field also gradually rose. Who is David F. Musto? Why did his studies do so well? I began to contact David F. Musto by email, then by publication and correspondences, and this opened up our more than ten-year friendship. After hearing from me, Dave immediately mailed the English version of The American Disease to me, and requested that I give him a favor by comparing the Chinese and English versions of his book. In return, I finished a book review published in the American Studies Quarterly, and introduced Musto’s book to Chinese counterparts. His book, combined with his encouragement, enlightened me on this subject and led me step by step to become deeply involved in research on the American drug policy history and the history of international drug policy.

In China, David Musto and his American Disease have taken on meaning beyond the academic world. The American Disease also represents an American scholar’s concern with China-U.S. academic exchange, especially for Shanghai, a city that hosted the first international opium commission in 1909. The year that the first edition of The American Disease was published, 1973, Dr. Musto had the chance to visit China as a member of Yale delegations, but was unable to make the trip. He did not travel to China until February 1999, when he visited Shanghai as an invited keynote speaker at the 90th anniversary Conference of the international opium commission. Since that trip, he had thought about how to make some contribution to Shanghai, a special place in the international drug policy history. In 2009, on the centennial anniversary of the international opium commission, I was working with Dr. Musto as a visiting professor at Yale.

A portion of David Musto's personal library on the shelves in Shanghai

A portion of David Musto’s personal library on display on the shelves in Shanghai

After careful consideration, we decided to establish an international Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University (later renamed the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies <>) based on his personal library. He believed his books and papers could play more important role in Shanghai.

Very sadly, when Musto was invited to attend a ceremony marking the donation of his books and papers to Shanghai University and the creation of the Center, he died of a heart attack on October 8, 2010. But I believe that the memory of David Musto, his books, and his academic legacy will stay with me and other scholars and students forever. All of us will continually benefit from his contributions to the China-U.S. academic exchange.

–Yong-an Zhang


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