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The signifiers chosen on manifold levels collaborate to project a negative image of modern China

The “Opium War,” the “sick man of East Asia”, the foot-binding of the Chinese women, those impressions branded in the innermost recesses of our mind have come down to us as symbolic signifiers to conceive of the modern China. Similarly, the opium, Dr. Fu Manchu and others have also become the symbolic signi- fiers with which the Western world depicted China in modern times. All those symbols and signifiers carried negative and humiliating connotations not only in the Western society but also in the Chinese society.

“Opium”: a perfect match for the mysteries about modern China

In the Western system of discourse, “opium” was a term that gave significant portrayal about the image of the modern China. Most of the scenes of fantasy created by Western writers on the basis of the opium pointed to China, depicting a mysterious, stunning, romantic but terrifying world. In his celebrated poem “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous lake poet in English literature, thus wrote:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover!3

The illusions induced by opium that plagued Thomas De Quincey, the English essayist during the Romantic Period, also carried the heavy exotic flavor of China. Obsessed by the guilt and the horror of a drug addict, De Quincey wrote his opium confessions, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). In his work, he informed his readers that, while imparting tremendous pleasure, opium also produced infinite pains; and the source of those pains could be traced to the Orient and to the Oriental people. In his dreamy reveries, he conceived a horrifying picture about China as an Oriental nation, fickle and capricious, bizarre and perilous. It was his belief that the East formed a complete whole and China was the most horrible within this whole, a country which remained unchanged for thousands of years, so isolated and rigidified that it even reminded people of mummies.4

What opium evoked in Coleridge and De Quincey was subconscious dreams in which they were transported to the Oriental nation of China. Based on the fact that “opium was the product of the East” and that “China was the largest opium-consuming country in the world,” plus the psychic experience of “China hallucinations brought about by opium reveries,” Western authors solidified their associations of “opium” with “the oriental dream” and with China in their subconscious. At the same time, the agonies and the horrors caused by opium addiction bore close similarities, on the level of inner experiences, to the sense of mystery and the thrill produced by the image of a China shaped by dreams. This means that “opium,” as the signifier of a sign, produced a signified on the connotative level and this signified bore similarity to the signified produced on the connota- tive level by “China,” which was the signifier of another sign. As a result, a metaphoric relationship between “opium” and “China” came into existence. “Opium,” as the signifier of a sign, which is also a most commonly used signifier in projecting the image of China, served as a metaphor for China in modern times, and it informed the English literature almost throughout the entire 19th century and the early 20th century.

In the system of Western discourse in modern times, the descriptions of both a fantasized China and the real-world China invariably contained comments on how the Chinese people consumed the opium and how the opium produced damages on people’s moral and physical conditions.5 China’s Millions, a publication affiliated to China Inland Mission (CIM) founded by J. Hudson. Taylor, the British

Protestant Christian missionary to China, described how the Chinese consumed opium: “In China, opium is producing its life-curtailing impact on all the Chinese individuals, young and old, men and women. In each room there can be found a lamp for roasting the opium and nine out of ten men would carry opium pipes whenever they go out. In every hotel, one could smell strong flavors of opium . . .”6

By virtue of those accounts, the assertion that “China is an opium-eating country” came to be developed. Under the impact of the generalization mechanism, this claim overshadowed the arbitrariness and the absurdity in the signification between the signifier “opium” and the signified “China.” The relationship was blurred to such an extent that, in the Western cognitive system, the signifier “opium” was automatically and unquestioningly used to mean, and hence to serve as an equivalent to, “China in the modern times.”

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