Drugging a Nation: The Story of China and the Opium Curse – Samuel Mervin

Rating – 4 stars ****

If you’ve never heard about the Opium Wars in anything more than passing, this book is worth the look at. The work of a journalist investigating a current affairs issue, it gives an insight into the debate and events surrounding China’s struggle with opium at the start of the 20th Century.

Whilst I question Samuel Mervin’s reliance in part on missionary reports (something that I always take with great scepticism due to the unavoidable religious bias, which not one manages to escape no matter how impartial they deem themselves), Mervin’s personal eyewitness testimony seems to corroborate those reports in a fairly substantial way. Bearing in mind that the book (or rather series of chapters aimed for newspaper release) was aimed to create support for the anti-opium opinion, it is possible to get an insight into the issues, debate and opinions of the time. Mervin can be definitely reproached for trying to press a ‘moral’ issue in the cause for the end of opium use and I never see merit in moralization – the only argument in such a cause is that of empathy – see the suffering and feel with those who do and do what you can to change it; no need for a ‘moral’ obligation, just a bit of empathy.

Nonetheless, that aside, this book provides a very interesting look into the opium issue in China and the involvement of Western nations, notably Great Britain, in causing the problem. I find it to be n astounding and rather worrying feat that it was possible to get something between 70 and 90 % of the Chinese addicted to opium (the differences in potential percentage seems to arise from the difficulty in assessing how much of the populace was actively addicted)! It’s a troubling achievement, however it was done – how do you get a populace to be addicted like that?!

If you’re interested in the Opium Wars and China, this book is worth the consideration as a contemporary source presenting the anti-opium case.

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