In Poppy Tears

In Poppy Tears

A Poem by Rick Puetter

The first Chinese opium war


The British gunboat Nemesis, commanded by Lieutenant William Hall, destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay on Jan 7, 1841.  This image is in the public domain, and can be seen at - mediaviewer/File:Destroying_Chinese_war_junks,_by_E._Duncan_(1843).jpg.


In Poppy Tears


"There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new"
--Oscar Wilde--The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).


In poppy tears they spent their lives--

In drug-numbed sleep they lay

The outside world so desperate

They swept those woes away

With all their strength they faced the world--

They did their very best

But outside world was harsh and cold

And poppy’s smoke sole rest


In poppy tears they cry in dreams--

They’ll trade in woe one day

They know but now a fantasy

Life’s demons held at bay


     *****     *****


It was the year of thirty nine

The nineteenth century

The British Empire ruled the world

And ‘ thirsty for its tea1


But China would not trade with them

Silver the single plum

With Spanish coin, pieces of eight

With only this, tea won


She was quite meek, her name Min Lan

The daughter of the cook

Oh, how her house had come to ruin

And how with tears she shook


For father Bai, the pure, did fall

To opium’s delight

Her brothers, too, both Xing and Zhi

Held by the drug’s sheer might

Trade needs a different currency

Ah, use addiction’s grip

Through greed and drug dependency

All wealth from China strip


“Disgrace and Sin,” said Eliot2--

A horrid, vile trade

He did his best to end traffic

With disrespect was paid


Now all the day she did the work

Her family not there

For opium, that pipe they’d smoke

Their world had not a care


And after days, she’d have to go

And get her family

She’d feed them well and clean them up

And also pay their fees


Dauguang, the emperor, banned it, too

Appointing Lin Zexu3

In Guangzhou now the trade was stopped

And British tension grew


And twenty thousand chests were seized

Each more ‘ a hundred pounds

At Chuanbi the chests destroyed

Then flushed to ocean sounds


Oh what a life of pain she lived

And worse, there was no hope

For every day the same she’d see

More tears, then try to cope


Drug merchants came into her shop

They knew she was alone

And rude remarks they threw at her

Compassion never shown


In England and ‘ United States

The people were outraged

They read the news on printed page

And prayed they’d not engage4


In Parliament, Lord Palmerston

By Gladstone is denounced

This “unjust and iniquitous”

The Viscount thus was trounced


And when they left she sighed relief

She knew it could be worse

She cried more tears, she calmed her fears

Scenarios rehearsed


Under the desk hid butcher’s knife

Meat cleaver by the light

More weapons hid around the house

She hid them out of sight


The shallow drafted Nemesis5

With strong, thick iron sides

With canon and its rockets dire

It was the British pride!


It would steam up the river mouth

Nothing could block its way

And junks were sunk and forts destroyed

The British held all sway

She knew it only would be time

Before they came for her

They’d grab and throw her on the floor

A fate she’d not endure


And days did pass, then weeks and months

With fear she filled the time

With no one here to give her help

Could she avoid this crime?

In ’41 the Boque6 forts fall

To canon and marines

Then Guangzhou7 falls in but one day

This city now the Queen’s


Late ’42 the war was won

This Pottinger’s8 fair prize

And then Unequal Treaty9 signed

This justice?  No just lies!


In August came that fateful day

Humidity and heat

Then several men called out at her

Stood drinking in the street


And then the men came through the door

And pulled it closed, behind

With loud and evil laughter shook

And then pulled down the blinds


     *****     *****

In poppy tears they spent their lives--

In drug-numbed sleep they lay

The outside world so desperate

They swept those woes away


With all their strength they faced the world--

They did their very best

But outside world was harsh and cold

And poppy’s smoke sole rest


In poppy tears they cry in dreams--

They’ll trade in woe one day

Their life now but a fantasy

...But it won't end that way




©2015 Richard Puetter

All rights reserved

Opium den circa 1890. Photographer unknown.  This image is in the public domain.  The original can be seen at - mediaviewer/File:Interior_chinese_lodging_house,_san_francisco.JPG



            The history of the two Chinese opium wars in the 1800’s is fascinating and shows how absolute power corrupts.  Detailed records, of course, survive from these times and official communications and records are filled with rationalizations for why the English were entitled to do what they did.  The interested reader can find much more of this on the web and in a number of engaging books.


1With the inception of the Canton trading system in 1756, the British East India Trading Company had a monopoly on trade with China.  This was extremely lucrative for them and for the thirteen chinese Hongs, with which they traded.  At the time tea only came from China, and the emperor would only trade with the western barbarians for silver.  They would accept nothing else.  So lots of silver was paid for tea, which was extremely popular in England.  One amusing fact was that only the inferior black tea (fired and dried green tea) was shipped to England since the superior green tea would spoil on the trip to England.


2Charles Eliot went to China in 1834 as Master Attendant to Lord Napier, the Chief Superintendent.  He became the Chief Superintendent in 1836 and retained that position until he was relieved by Sir Henry Pottinger in June of 1843 as he was thought to be too favorable to the Chinese.  He was repulsed by the trade in opium which at it height had 90% of the coastal population addicted to the drug.


3In 1839, Daoguang appointed Lin Zexu as the governor of Canton, who banned opium on his arrival in Guangzhou (Canton).  This was the beginning of the serious confrontation between China and England that, with the destruction of 20,000 chests of seized opium (each containing 130-150 lb of opium), led directly to the first opium war.  This was about ½ of the yearly import of opium in 1939.  It was Eliot that convinced the western traders that England would reimburse them for the opium.  This didn’t happen.  Eventually with the Unequal Treaty, China would pay for the opium along with the cost of the war.  At the time, high quality opium was worth up to four times its weight in silver (let’s say 2x on average).  So this amounted to over 5 million pounds of silver coin, which were commonly 0.9 pure silver.  Today, pure silver trades for about $16 per ounce.  So you do the math and see why this was a big deal.


4The war was hotly debated in England at the United States.  Famously, Lord Palmerston (Henry Temple, the 3rd Viscount Palmerston), British Foreign Secretarty, was publically denounced in Parliament by young William Gladstone, who would go on to serve as Prime Minister four times and also four times as Chancellor of the Exchequer.


5The Nemesis, was a steam powered paddleboat that was heavily gunned, iron-clad, and had a shallow 6 ft draft, making it perfect for river warfare.  Successful use of such superior ships and gunnery would eventually lead to the expression “gun-boat diplomacy”.  Eliot was aboard the Nemesis for most of its battles when he was in China.


6Chinese forts at the mouth of the Pearl river.




8Sir Henry Pottinger, Lieutenant General, in 1843 Chief Commander of the British troops in Hong Kong, sent in to replace Eliot and conduct war with China.


9The Unequal Treaty (The Treaty of Nanking), was signed after the fall of Shanghai, on August 29, 1842, ending the first Opium War. In this treaty, among other things, the British gain the right to be governed by British law in China, the Chinese pay for the destroyed opium, they also pay all the war costs of the British, and the British gain possession of Hong Kong.


The mouth of the Pearl river, showing Hong Kong and Canton.  Original: 1175px-Map_of_Canton_River.jpg.  This image is in the public domain.  Source: James Orange (1924).  The Chater Collection: Pictures Relating to China, Hongkong, Macao, 1655-1860. p. 144.

© 2020 Rick Puetter

My Review

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Wow. Just wow.
I'm familiar with this history. This is classic and very well written, as are all the works I've read by you.

I've also been studying some China history, especially the Shaolin. I've been writing pieces of a story from my own research, but I'm beginning in 1921 with glimpses backward into this history. The arrogance and greed of the British and the Americans through history is often appalling. This was a difficult time in history for "old world" countries. In America, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 was as ridiculous. Peace.

Posted 5 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.


I've been staring at the blank comment box for awhile now...and then going back...rereading...and then staring at the white again. I love the layers this piece holds. This piece is structured very well - such as your separation from the opening stanzas before the division between the historical and girl's story aspects of the piece. "And then pulled down the blinds" - you have a gift for leaving the unsaid said. Very powerful.

Posted 3 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

This seems like a really interesting topic which I don't know much about.
I love the 2 story lines-the more informative history of opium and then the personal story of a woman dealing with opium in her household. This is gripping and exciting and brings history to life!
Thanks! You have me interested.. =)

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

A clever blending of historical fact with really excellent poetry.

Arrogance and greed and taking by force, has of course been a staple diet of mankind since we first stood upright and I don't imagine such behaviour will ever entirely disappear, anymore than various other genetically programmed traits will.


Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

a fascinating lyrical history lesson and subject matter not usually covered in the normal scope of things.

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Very enlightening and informative! I'm glad I took the time to read, and look forward to reading several more times. Thank you for posting this.

Posted 4 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

WOW is right. Great job. I have read about this before.
I would love to post this on my web site. Its new and just getting started. Please give it a look.
The address is!introduction/mainPage
Happy Memorials Day. Alex

Posted 5 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

A masterful poem, I reckon.
As others have mentioned, the entwining of the historical/political story with the intimate and local helps to draw the reader deep into this narrative.
For those familiar with the story, the political expediency of 19th century British imperialism is abhorrent, and in retrospect it's easy to condemn their activities outright, yet, from a contemporary perspective, it is true to say that Hong Kong, the hundred-year British lease of it and The New Territories, and its unique history as a ‘door ajar’ into the People’s Republic of China is pivotal to the development of modern China; in particular, its awakening as a capitalist economy, and with it, (hopefully) a continuing enlightenment concerning human rights. I wonder, without Hong Kong as it was would ' The West' scrutinize China in the same fashion as it does (?)

Posted 5 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Rick Puetter

5 Years Ago

Thank you for your kind review. And you raise interesting questions. We will never know, of course.. read more
Usually either the left brain or the right is superior to the other, but in your case there is an amazing balance. You can give us a treatise on mathematics and write a poem like this equally well!

Posted 5 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

"Under the desk hid butcher’s knife
Meat clever by the light" --- Should this be meat cleaver?

I love how you juxtaposed the history alongside the story of Min Lan. I think sometimes people have a difficult time connecting to a history that they are unfamiliar with, but the story of Min Lan adds a bit of personal realism that everyone can relate to. I think we all, at one time or another, try to pick up the shattered pieces that others leave behind. Unfortunately, it can bode unwell for those who are too weak to walk away or who simply see know what out of their predicament.

Drugs and alcohol are used to pull down the blinds against a world that one cannot handle. Sadly, the abuser makes a wall to keep others out, not realizing that he's burying himself behind that wall of denial.

As always, your writing is beyond and above.

Posted 5 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

This comment has been deleted by the poster.
Rick Puetter

5 Years Ago

Hi Linda Marie! Of course this should be "cleaver". Much thanks. And thanks for the generous revi.. read more
Wendy Seames Garner

4 Years Ago

Just wonderful! Lots of attention to detail, you did a great job researching this.

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27 Reviews
Shelved in 5 Libraries
Added on February 23, 2015
Last Updated on February 22, 2020
Tags: opium, war, opium war, Chinese history, British history, The Nemisis


Rick Puetter
Rick Puetter

San Diego, CA

So what's the most important thing to say about myself? I guess the overarching aspect of my personality is that I am a scientist, an astrophysicist to be precise. Not that I am touting science.. more..

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A Poem by Rick Puetter