The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China (Stanford UP, 2022) explores the opium trade — but not through the relatively well-trodden history of the ‘Opium Wars.’ Instead, in this wonderfully rich book Peter Thilly investigates the little known social history of the opium trade in coastal southern Fujian province. The Opium Business focuses on the relationship between the state and local businesses, charting how it changed as opium went from contraband to tax staple in the late nineteenth century, and then from tax staple to prohibited commodity in the early twentieth century.
While this book is sure to interest anyone keen to learn more about modern Chinese history, the history of capitalism, and the history of global narcotics, this book should also be of interest to anyone looking to read about some truly fascinating individuals who made the 'opium business' happen. By uncovering the history of the tax farmers, roving gangs, smugglers, and 'opium kings' who moved, sold, and hid opium, Thilly's book reminds us that it was people — with competing motivations, complicated backgrounds, and networks of friends — who made the opium trade happen.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.