• Let us start 300 years ago.

    England and the Chinese Qing Empire were engaged in some difficult trade relations. The English imported tea, silk, porcelain, and other items from China. China, in return, was pretty much self-sufficient and only interested in English silver. With their silver supply rapidly dwindling (because the English have a love affair with tea), they went looking for something else the Chinese would be interested in in trading. And in their Bengal colonies they found opium.

  • Opium had been known in China for at least a thousand years, but the drug was hard to get by...

    Opium had been known in China for at least a thousand years, but the drug was hard to get by and was only used as a medicine by the elites. This changed when the English started supplying tons of opium every year and with the invention of vaporizing opium.The use of opium recreationally became immediately a widespread social problem. The Qing Emperor tried banning and outlawing the trade and use of opium, but to no avail. There were millions of opium users in China and for England the trade was far too lucrative to stop.

     

    China’s efforts to ban opium started the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century. However, China was defeated and humiliated in both wars. The results of these wars were a decline of power of the Qing Emperor, a forced legalized opium trade, the burning of the royal Summer Palaces by Anglo-French troops and Hong Kong becoming a British colony.

  • China was forced to open its borders for trade. This led to the grow of Chinatowns and Chinese communities abroad....

    China was forced to open its borders for trade. This led to the grow of Chinatowns and Chinese communities abroad. For example, the greatest number of Chinese immigrants came to the USA to work on the railroads or tried to find their fortune during the Gold Rush.

     

    With the influx of Chinese workers in the 19th century came their social habit of opium smoking and opium dens. Most opium dens were run and frequented by the Chinese and were situated where the Chinese lived and worked. But also other nationalities such as French seamen and expatriates brought back the habit of opium smoking from their own colonies in Indochina. Therefore opium smoking acquired a mysterious image due to the exotic-looking immigrants and romanticized tales brought back from far-flung colonies.

  • Opium kits were cumbersome and too big to carry around and addicts often wanted a private spot to smoke so a den was the place to go.
  • There was a big difference in the smoking of opium between the elite members of societies and poorer workers. The very rich often had a private smoking room in their own house and a servant who prepared the opium for them. Opium dens catered to all layers of society but differed highly in furnishings and attendants. High-end opium dens had elaborate beds, intricately carved opium kits and many female attendants who prepared the pipes. In cheap opium dens, smokers lay on a mat or shared beds and brought their own kits. Often attendants helped to prepare the pipes because the preparation of opium for vaporization was a bit difficult. These lower-end establishments catered more often to foreigners than high-end ones.

  • Opium smokers lay on their side while preparing and smoking opium. An opium kit consisted of a tray, a pipe,...
    Opium smokers lay on their side while preparing and smoking opium. An opium kit consisted of a tray, a pipe,...

    Opium smokers lay on their side while preparing and smoking opium. An opium kit consisted of a tray, a pipe, an opium box, a lamp and utensils to prepare the opium. If they were rich enough, they laid down on a bed that provide quiet and privacy as opium users were sensitive for loud noises and stress. An opium bed had three raised sides that ensured there was no draft to stir the flame of the opium lamp and interrupt the smoking.

  • Opium pipes

  • Opium pipes were made in many kinds of materials and in elaborate or simple designs. Apparently, smokers had personal opinions on the best taste of opium with pipes made of certain materials. Nowadays, it is very hard to find an original opium pipe because a lot of them were destroyed during crackdowns on addiction in the West and in China. 
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  • Enamel opium boxes

  •  What remains of opium smoking are mostly old, private opium kits brought from Indochinese colonies. These small and ofter overlooked items do carry a lot of history. The small opium boxes of the 19th century – generally around 5 cm high, 5 cm long and 2 cm wide- were often made of brass and decorated with multicolored cloisonné enamel. These boxes could be of various shapes: round, oval, rectangular or polygonal. The cloisonné designs could depict different themes: objects from the scholar’s desk (a bronze censer, a brush pot with pens, scrolls), flowers (Chrysanthemum-flower, Magnolia) & vases, animals (bats, lions, dragons, phoenix…), clouds etc. 

  • The representations of the scholar’s desk utensils refer to scholarly virtues and the wish for longevity.  Flowers like the Chrysanthemum represent nobility, the Magnolia in turn gives shape to the qualities of nobility and womanly beauty. Various animal species are loaded with meanings in China. The dragon symbolizes the balance of all things in the universe, or he refers to the Emperor, the phoenix can be associated with the Empress, the bat stands for prosperity, the lion can indicate power and good fortune. Clouds, common in Chinese art, represent a good omen and good fortune. The motif conveys also inner peace. 

     

    These metal objects can be decorated in different ways. They can be gilded, engraved, or covered with enamel.  Adding enamel adds color to the shine of the polished metal. There are three basic techniques for applying enamel onto metal surfaces: cloisonné enamel, champlevé enamel and painted enamel. In the first case, a composition of pulverized multicolored glass is fused within wire cells. In the champlevé technique, the enamel is fused into hollowed-out fields or grooves. Finally, in the case of painted enamel the applied paint air-dries to a hard, usually glossy substance. 

     

    The glass paste that was used was initially colorless and consisted mainly of quartz sand, lead, soda, kaolin, feldspar, borax, salpeter, sodium and magnesium. Colors were obtained by adding metals or metal oxides. For example, the addition of cobalt produced blue, tin gave a white hue, copper oxide provided a green color, manganese peroxide colored the glass paste purple etc. 

  • The technique of enameling of metal objects in China provided artistic delights from the Early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) onwards. Patronage at the imperial court gave a boost to this form of applied art. Enameled metal was thus initially reserved for a social elite. Yet, objects with enamel decoration also appeared in important religious contexts, for example in temples of Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians. The enamel lent itself to a wide range of decorative motifs. In the 15th century, stylized lotus flowers and scrolls were very popular. Of course, the traditional representations of dragons and phoenixes continued to appear. During the Wanli-period (1573-1620) the enamels depicted more elaborate scenes with humans and animals in landscapes as well as geometric patterns. The eighteenth century was a period of innovation in the field of enameled metalwork. Enamel decorated not only tableware or vessels, but from now on also three-dimensional figurines of people and animals, bird cages, hat stands and even carriage equipment. The important production centers of enameled objects were Beijing, Yangzhou and Guangzhou. The Chinese cloisonné’s lost their finesse and charm during the 19th century. This was due to the loss of court patronage and the increasing demand for such products by Western Europeans in the second half of the 19th century.

  • Waterpipes

  • How were the waterpipes used?

    The heated opium was placed in the lidded well of the pipe. The smoker could inhale the fumes through this pipe. Most water pipes have a holder for storing the maintenance tools, such as a little brush, a spike and tweezers. The water pipes could easily be smoked while sitting down, unlike the regular opium pipes. Those were smoked while lying down. 

  • Waterpipe bowls

  • Opium Lamps

  • Opium smokers used opium lamps to make the vaping and inhaling of the opium easier. These lamps which contained spirits in their base, were specifically designed to channel an exact amount of heat upward through funnel-shaped chimneys. The smoker held the pipe-bowl of his opium pipe above the lighted lamp. This caused the small dose of opium contained in the bowl to vaporize, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapors of the drug. The opium lamps could be crafted from brass, silver or paktong (an alloy of zinc, copper, and nickel). The metal parts were often decorated with cloisonné enamel. The chimneys of the opium lamps were made from glass.

  • Exceptional opium paraphernalia

  • Antique Chinese Opium Box in hammered Brass, Decorated with a Scene of a Rider in a Landscape,

    Antique Chinese Opium Box in hammered Brass, Decorated with a Scene of a Rider in a Landscape

    3,2 diameter x 6 cm
    € 890.00
  • Small Antique Chinese Opium Box in Ivory with an Engraved Decoration. This Embellishment shows Human Figures in a Landscape. There...

    Small Antique Chinese Opium Box in Ivory with an Engraved Decoration. This Embellishment shows Human Figures in a Landscape. There are Traces of Use on the Inside of the Object.

    3,3 cm diameter x 4,5 cm
    € 900.00