Opium for the Masses

In Republican China, amid the chaos of dynastic collapse and war, opium became a rare stable currency, yielding huge riches for those who knew how to work the system.

opium farmers in a poppy field  in Yunnan, China, c.1900.
Opium farmers in a poppy field in Yunnan, China, c.1900 © Pictures from History/Bridgeman Images.

In October 1938, with Guomindang soldiers hammering on her door, Chen Xuying was in her bathroom frantically feeding drugs into the toilet. Though opiates were her livelihood, they were also illegal; she hoped to make her stash soggy, useless and, crucially, not incriminating. By the time the soldiers forcibly entered her home, bags, tins and vials of morphine and other opiates had been destroyed.

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