Field of dreams: A remarkable exhibition sheds new light on the dark history of the opium business

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It was the means of escape that held millions in its thrall – and the British Empire was built on its profits.

Instruments of addiction are not supposed to be as exquisite as an opium pipe. Beautifully weighted and impeccably crafted, a 19th-century example from China, whether hewn from rough bamboo or shaped from elegant porcelain and finished with silver, is as sleek and deadly as an antique rifle. Even today, as one collector discovered, opium pipes can lead to hazardous temptation – and so great was the danger embodied by these beautiful objects that the Chinese destroyed thousands, making the collection shown in London this week as rare as it is eye-catching.

This exhibition, the first of its kind in Britain, is being held by Mayfair bookseller Maggs Bros in Berkeley Square, a few doors down from the house in which General Robert Clive died in 1774. Nobody knows quite how Clive of India met his end, but opium was probably involved. A manic depressive, Clive took the drug for a bowel disorder and may have overdosed. Others say that he shot himself or slit his throat, under pressure from various scandals and while in an opium reverie.

The implication of opium in Clive's death is appropriate, as it was the general's victory at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757 that allowed the East India Company to take over and start growing opium poppies on an industrial scale. Clive's administrative reforms needed to be paid for, and opium was a useful drug – it's a painkiller and causes constipation, both of which were of immense value before aspirin, and when dysentery and cholera were rife. It's also addictive. "Wherever opium is grown it is eaten, and the more it is grown, the more it is eaten," noted one East India Company manager in 1840. By then, Britain had been selling opium to China for 60 years, partly to balance the books for the vast amount of Chinese tea the British consumed. The result was an epidemic, as opium took a hold at every level of Chinese society.

China was not the only nation to embrace opium, of course. The British downed the stuff by the bucketload. But the opium enjoyed by Thomas De Quincey and a large percentage of the working population came from Turkey and was served as laudanum, dissolved in sherry. The Chinese, uniquely, preferred to smoke their opium and had done so even before the British began their pernicious trade.

Tobacco had arrived in China in the 1600s and a smoking culture took hold. Tobacco was often mixed with opium – known as yang yao, foreign drug, and valued as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Eventually, opium was smoked on its own, and this increased as huge amounts arrived from India – from 4,244 chests in 1820 to 40,200 in 1839. As the Chinese spent more of their silver on the drug, the state imposed various bans, but these were circumvented by smugglers and eventually war. With Britain's victory in the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, opium assumed its role as a cornerstone of Chinese social life alongside tobacco and tea, to be enjoyed with friends, with a rich material culture and its own customs, tools and traditions.

The collection of material displayed at Maggs belonged to Julio Mario Santo Domingo Braga, who built an immense drug library before his death in 2009. The son of a Colombian businessman, Santo Domingo was a Geneva-based financier who developed a fascination with "altered states" – sex, drugs, rock music and the occult – and set about building a library to explore the topic from every angle, including anything from Baudelaire to Keith Richards. He purchased thousands of rare books, posters, paintings and letters, the bulk of which are now on long-term loan at Harvard.

He also purchased two complete collections of antique Chinese opium paraphernalia – those belonging to Dutch art dealer Ferry Bertholet and the mysterious Wolf K, about whom we only know that he lived and worked in the Far East for 30 years. The Wolf sale was brokered by Maggs, which is now looking to sell the combined collection of around 3,000 objects as a ready-made museum exploring the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium. "There's nothing like this outside of an institution," says Carl Williams of Maggs. "The ephemera is extraordinary – photographs, posters, stamps, licences: stuff that was picked up in Chinese markets over 20 years." k

There are also hundreds of pipes, some of which Bertholet acquired before selling to Santo Domingo. "I was collecting Chinese erotic art and I read that in most brothels there was also opium smoking," explains Bertholet, now 61. "I thought it would be nice to have an opium pipe. I was lucky enough to buy a fantastic one in Germany and, holding this pipe, I was flabbergasted by its beauty and balance. So I thought, well, maybe I need a second pipe. Then someone said if I had two pipes, I needed a lamp, a tray and other articles. I got more and more interested in the topic and it poisoned me."

Opium pipes are a stunning example of Chinese craftsmanship, but they also offer insight into Chinese culture. The typical pipe is between 40cm and 65cm long and has a metal fitting called the saddle, two-thirds of the way along to which the bowl is connected. The pipe was usually made of bamboo, but could be covered in tortoiseshell or enamel. Some pipes were made of ebony, others ivory, bone, silver, iron, buffalo or rhinoceros horn, porcelain or jade.

Pipes could have jade or ivory endpieces and were often elaborately decorated. The saddle might be decorated with dormice, lilies, bats or dragons, and the detachable bowl, made of stone or porcelain, in which opium was evaporated, was shaped to resemble crabs, shells or poppy heads. Then came other paraphernalia – lamps, trays, needles, scrapers, pill boxes and pipe stands, even pipes that could be broken into parts for travelling.

"The most efficient pipes are made of bamboo," says Williams of Maggs. "The larger pipes that are made out of semi-precious stone are harder to smoke – they are heavy and the material isn't as absorbent, so it doesn't get 'seasoned' as well as bamboo."

These more indulgent pipes had other benefits, though. "They borrow heavily from the great stories of Chinese literature, from their gods, their religions and from their way of organising society adopted through Confucianism," says Williams. "The great secret of this collection isn't just the amazing handiwork but this tradition of seeing the Tao, the energy, being transferred to the person using an implement said to be infused with those qualities."

According to this theory, a jade pipe will have an innate quality or meaning, specific to the nature of that material, and by smoking through it the user will absorb these characteristics, or perhaps draw them out of the opium. The decorative detail serves the same purpose, while also offering the mind something to explore while high. Williams notes a similarity with Timothy Leary's fascination with setting – that a certain environment is more conducive to providing a psychedelic, life-changing, religious experience when taking LSD. "Opium was the LSD of its time," he says. "It was calming and soporific but it also gave a hallucinatory experience. You saw dragons, castles and mythical creatures."

This rich quality of the opium experience helped explain its popularity. A huge number of Chinese men smoked, some occasionally, some daily and some so frequently they were known as yan gui, opium ghosts. Opium was called fu shou gao, happiness and longevity paste, and created vivid waking dreams. It was said to be an aphrodisiac, making it fashionable among the rich, who smoked expensive opium through ornate pipes in luxurious brothels. It also dulled pain, quelled appetites, blurred time and relaxed muscles, making it equally desirable for coolies, manual labourers who spent long, desperate hours engaged in back-breaking work with minimal food. Coolies smoked cheap native opium or dross – used opium scraped from bowls – through simple pipes. People smoked together in special buildings, where opium could be bought, prepared and consumed. Women smoked too, although in nowhere near the numbers as men.

As opium billowed through society, from top to bottom, the perception of it changed. Poor smokers were seen to shame the nation, squandering time and money. By the late 1800s, people had accepted that it was addictive, and as the drug was increasingly regarded as a problem, solving that problem became central to any Chinese statesman's ambitions, even if they were as partial to it as anybody else. The British, too, became horrified by the consequences of the opium trade, while continuing to swig gallons of the stuff back at home. "The elite made opium smoking fashionable, while the lower classes made its consequences undesirable," notes Zheng Yangwen in The Social Life of Opium in China. k

Bertholet discovered the seductive nature of opium for himself. "I was writing a book and felt I had to experience opium to write about it," he explains. "I went to Laos and smoked and went to Paris and smoked, but each time I got terribly sick; it never had a pleasant effect. But I was determined and finally I had the most wonderful night you can imagine. You cannot sleep with opium, but I had wonderful dreams, incredible ideas and I felt terrific. I didn't want to become addicted, so my plan was to smoke once a weekend, but then it became not only the weekend but also once during the week and in the end I was smoking every day. I don't know if I was addicted, but I was very close. I recognised the danger and I stopped. I could see why it was a comfort for many people. Daily life was a misery for some in China and this was a fantastic means of escape."

It's impossible to know how many people in China were addicted – estimates range from a million to 40 million from a population of around 400 million in 1900 – but almost every male would have smoked a pipe at one time in his life. Indeed, the pipe became so closely associated with China that a "Hong Kong opium smoking parlour" with a "living Chinaman" was exhibited at Earls Court in 1899 and when the Chinese government arranged a gallery at the St Louis Exposition in Missouri in 1904, it featured a dozen pipes and other paraphernalia.

As Chinese workers migrated, they took their pipes with them and opium dens appeared in France, America and England, but on nothing like the scale at home.

In China, meanwhile, the state passed regular edicts to ban the drug, which were usually ignored. The Maggs Bros exhibition includes anti-smoking posters and adverts for opium cures, which often contained derivatives such as morphine and heroin.

Western missionaries arrived to fight the scourge, often on the same boats as the drug itself, earning it another nickname, "Jesus opium". Later, addicts were executed and pipes burnt in huge public displays. Opium was eventually eradicated by the Communists, brutally and with much anti-imperialistic rhetoric. By the 1950s, it had vanished from Chinese society, leaving just the wisp of a memory for a nation that had once seemed to live for little else.

How to smoke opium like the original hipsters

Smoking in China was social, partly because it was so hard. Help was needed and expertise valued, leading to the creation of special smoking establishments, some simple, others large and plush.

The raw opium was first heated over a lamp so it took on a treacly consistency. This was then shaped with needles into a pill – servers had swallows tattooed on their hands and would make the wings flap as they turned the needles.

The pill was then placed in the pipe bowl and the pipe rotated so the bowl was heated by the lamp. As the opium began to simmer, the smoker inhaled the vapour. If you got the heat or timing wrong at any stage, the drug could be unusable. "Opium is like a living thing," explains the collector Ferry Bertholet. "You can easily burn it or find it behaves differently each time."

The smoker lay on one side – this is where the slang "hipster" came from – and might stare at the lamp or decorated pipe to help bring on hallucinations. "A sympathy seemed to arise between the waking and the dreaming state of the brain," said Thomas De Quincey of laudanum. "For all human woes, here was the secret of happiness." The Chinese in their millions agreed – in the words of one poet, "holding the beautiful as fragrance rises".

Opium is at Maggs Bros, 50 Berkeley Square, London W1 (maggs.com) from Wednesday to 31 July

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