PROJECT 201801

On Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and the Opium Wars in China

1. Introduction: YSLs Opium
2. Analysis of advertisement campaigns
3. Exotism in late 20th century Europe
4. The Opium Wars in China (1839–1842 and 1856–1860)
5. Thesis
In this essay, I will offer some details on a well-known haute couture of Yves Saint Laurent and its connection to neocolonialism, cultural appropriation and the opium wars in China.

在这篇文章中,我将提及一些关于Yves Saint Laurent高级时装的细节,以及其与新殖民主义、文化占有和鸦片战争的联系。

        This essay is interpreting the strategies as well as the artistic-creative moment of Saint-Laurent and his company in the time of 1977 and after, as something, which is bursting the borders of the common exoticism of its time. The foundation of this text is the analysis of the haute couture, most relevantly the simultaneously released perfume, its name, its advertisements, its associations and impact in combination with other media as “Meta media”.
There will be no in-detail feminist critique in this text, for one can find such already in works of Fernholz (2013) and Amy-Chinn (2001). Anyhow orientalism and exoticism often go hand in hand with sexism and especially misogyny (Beyme 2008, S. 1), so there were at least some words necessary.

        In 1977 Yves Saint Laurent1 released the perfume Opium in addition to its haute couture. This collection takes its colours, symbols and signs in general from traditional Chinese and Japanese aesthetic. The first print campaign was in 1977 (fig. 1), photographed by Helmut Newton. It shows ornaments, magnolia and a Buddha statue, functioning as references to Chinese/Asian aesthetics and culture. A woman (Jerry Hall) is lying in the foreground of the scenery. On the top right of the picture, there is a phial, whose form is taken from traditional Japanese Inrō 印籠 (17th to the late 19th century, compare fig. 2). The name has its roots in the middle Chinese jin 印 "seal" and 籠 "cage". These objects were used to store seals, medicine or coins – especially by men.2 Furthermore it is possible, that the 1977 handbags (fig. 4) were inspired by round Inrōs.A flask of similar form is sold again as a limited edition in 2017: Opium 40th Anniversary Edition. (fig. 3) It is designed by Manuela Paul-Cavallier and coloured by hand by a „Morrocan women's collective“ which is not described in detail by the company. There are more limited editions of Opium, created to appeal through the use of chinese-sounding names: Opium Fleur de Shanghai (2005), Opium Orchidée de Chine (2007), and Opium Poesie de Chine (2008). 

Fig. 1 First print campaign, 1977, photographed by Helmut Newton

Fig. 2 Inrōs of the collection Charles A. Greenfield:
1 Inrō No. 5, 17th century;
2 Samurai Dandy, Detail of a Polyptich of pleasures, early 17th century, Collection Yahata Yotaro, Tokyo “This young gentleman on a picnic wears the moste fashionable style. From his sash, a money bag and an inrō hang, attached to a ring-shaped netsuke. A packet of papers protrudes from the breast fold of his kimono” (Pekarik 1980, S. 24)
3 Inrō No. 6, Horse bound to a pile, 17th century

Fig. 3 Opium 40th Anniversary Edition; Fig. 4 Protoype for a handbag, autumn-winter 1977 haute couture collection, Yves Saint Laurent. Tambourine bag in gold leather decorated with black ribbed and topstitched waxed leaves and trimmed with a gold and black passementerie cord ending in two black silk tassels with gold metal ornaments shaped like small pagodas (Sophie Carre)

        A commercial for Opium, which was implemented in 1992 by David Lynch (Rodley 1997, p. 257), shows the Spaniard Nastasia Urbano. Throughout, except for a production from 2018, only white people are presented together with the product, all within an Asian environment. In 2014 Black Opium is released on European and middle eastern markets. Following in 2015 are the USA, Asia and Latin America. The international campaign consists of several videos published on tv and the internet. In 2018 a new video is following, directed by Jonas Lindstroem. In both campaigns we can see a constructed urban-asian environment. This issue will be addressed later.

Figure 5: A part of the Haute Couture 1977, identifiable as Qípáo 旗袍 or
Cheongsam 長衫 (Cantonese); Figure 6: part of the Haute Couture 1977

        Below, I focus on the commercials produced for Black Opium. Striking here is the exact location to be determined in some scenes: Shanghai; more specifically, the Pudong district, which is introduced by showing iconic structures like the Jin Mao Tower and the Oriental Pearl Tower, partly further away in the context of the skyline, partly from the inside. Also, Chinese characters can be made out in several places. In one scene the whole picture was mirrored (Fig. 8); which can lead to the assumption, that in the production of these commercials was not any attention paid to a potential Chinese-language target group . Nevertheless, the Asian market was officially included and considered economically relevant.

Figure 7: Black Opium 60‘ (YSL Beauty 2014): In the background you can see the „Oriental Pearl Tower“.

        Some of the neon signs show traditional Chinese characters, which are rare in big Chinese cities like Shanghai, but are standard in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. The characters in this scene say "Today is a good day", "Great pop music" or "(Life) is natural" ; sometimes the same signs are used elsewhere in different spots and scenes, suggesting, along with the fantastic content, that the majority of these signs appearing were constructed specially for the commercial.
        The lighting mood is dominated by neon colours, referencing to a nightlife that has been coined by Hollywood films and classics such as Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void with reference to Japan, specifically the neon-flair of Tokyo.
        This aesthetics and analysis are confirmed by a new commercial for Black Opium partly published in August 2018, with Jonas Lindstroem as director, who continues or had to continue with this modus operandi.

Figure 8: Black Opium Floral Shock 60‘ (YSL Beauty 2017): Mirrored scene (bottom, original) with fictive neon signs.

        The association that arises here is one of the Opium Wars in China (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and can take place on several levels:

1. Europe trades with China and introduces opium into the country, regardless of the consequences or under acceptance of such, then mass import of opium - even after the criminalisation of consumers by the Chinese gouvernment. Now by provocation and ignorance.

2. Building on the Chinese market as the most significant sales market. (This will be explained in more detail in the chapter on the Opium Wars.)

        In America, the release of Opium in the years after 1977 caused a stir. Hence was founded the American Coalition Against "Opium" And Drug Abuse, which then called for a boycott of SQUIBB, the then parent company of Yves Saint Laurent. (Nemy 1979) Their demands were a change of the perfume name as well as a public apology by Yves Saint Laurent personally. (Nemy 1979) As a result, the advertising was withdrawn, the name remained Opium. (Friedman 1999, p. 146) In China too, the perfume was regarded an affront, and consequently a sales ban was imposed at the end of December 1999. Before, it had been on the Chinese market for five years. (Agence France-Presse 2000) One of the reasons for this ban was the manifested memory of the Opium Wars, (Chu 2000) and civillians protesting against the perfume. Rather than picking up the critical voices, the press focused on a big party, which Yves Saint Laurent may have set up to prevent such critical reporting through simple distracting. However, the press would not have considered the perfume and its commercials particularly problematic because exoticism was customary at that time and was viewed quite positively by the society as a whole.
        The entanglement of Yves Saint Laurent in this topic of the Opium War together with morally questionable actions is becoming increasingly apparent, when the case of the sale of two stolen relics is taken into consideration: a rabbit head and rat head made of bronze (Qing Dynasty 1644-1911) stolen by British-French troops. (China Daily 2009) This stolen property was placed for sale at an auction by Yves Saint Laurent's life partner Pierre Berge through the Foundation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent. (China Daily 2009) China criticised this action publicly. (Branigan 2008)

        To understand why Yves Saint Laurent built his collections on traditional ornaments created by various ethnic groups in the past, it is essential to include the context of the time. The terms orientalism and exoticism play a significant role here. Edward Said defines Orientalism as a "western gesture to dominate, restructure and gain authority over the Orient". (Said 1979, p. 3) He notes that this–the demarcation of an "Orient" as a unified whole from the "Occident"– was relevant in the formation of a Euro-Western identity. (Said 1979, p. 3) It can be concluded that, as long as Orientalism exists, it will continue to fulfil this function of identity formation and support an already existing picture of a strong and superior "West." Exoticism and Orientalism must also be considered as a consequence of European colonialism. (Schultz 1995, p. 106) European orientalism of the late 20th century is starting with orientalist paintings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, not only occuring in France but also in England and other countries (Meagher 2004). The fashion of 1970 to 74 was characterised by a continuation of several themes of the late 60s, such as Orientalism and Afro-American Influences (Steele 1997, p. 281) This continued until the 1990s, in which the interest in the African continent, also as a whole, decreased. The popularity of Chinese looks was especially high in the 70s fashion. (Steele 1997, p. 292-293) The reassuring relationship between China and governments of the global West and the following trade relations are cited as reasons. That way Chinese workwear (Loughran 2009, p. 246) – with the subtext of left, anti-colonialist politics and a "new western fantasy of the workers paradise" (Steele 1997, pp. 292-293), as well as the "Mandarin look" provides exotic and romantic pictures. (Steele 1997, pp. 292-293) The latter, in combination with Japanese traditional objects, for the same purpose is used by Yves Saint Laurent in his collection of 1977 and the subsequent parfume Opium.

CONNECTION: THE OPIUM WARS IN CHINA (1839–1842 and 1856–1860)3
        The following is a linkage of the gesture described in the first chapter with the way the perfume and the 1977 collection were named and marketed. This reminds one of the mindset of former colonial powers, which subsequently manifested in the exploitation and killing of countless people and other living beings, as well as in the wrong conclusion of the Opium Wars marking a starting point of modern China.
        The first opium war (1840-42) reflects British citizens need for Chinese tea. This caused silver shortages; yet, silver was necessary for trading with China. To continue this trade, England started offering opium from the British-India (British Raj) colony, produced by workers of the Eastern India Company. As a result, the now growing import of opium caused China a tremendous loss of silver and widespread drug addiction. It is relevant to know, that from the Tang to the Ming dynasty, Opium has been used in China mostly as medicine.
        Already in 1800 the opium import as well as the production of opium was banned in China. Later in 1813 the consumption of opium was criminalized (Spence 1990, p. 131). The ban was then circumvented by the British through smuggling, black market trading and bribery. (Spence 1990, Pp. 131-132) A large-scale government anti-opium campaign then aimed to put an end to this situation. Lin Zexu 林则徐 (Lín zé xú) was appointed a commissioner for the opium industry; he obtained powers to initiate coercive measures through this position. In June 1839 he ordered the incineration of 20,000 boxes of opium and pushed the British traders resident in Guangzhou 广州 市 (Guǎngzhōu) to Hong Kong. For England in its colonial mood this act was unbelievable; after a failed demand of getting the opium back or paid, England declaired war. China was far outnumbered technically4 and largely unprepared. China's then capitulation was followed by the Nanjing Treaty5 (August 29, 1842) and an additional treaty in 1843. These contracts were by no means beneficial to both parties but geared to exploit China and to continue the humiliation.
        Through internalised capitalism and national pride, resulting in the devaluation of the "other", England was imposing "trade" and then leading China to war. In other words and generalised, it is the imposition of (harmful) Objects and forgetting what the respective counterpart needs and claims, as well as the subsequent application of force to coin objects of their own needs. This is the gesture of these wars and their prehistory, that is formed by Europe.
        The assumption that the opium wars were the basis for the beginning of a modern China, was a thing for some years in academic discourses until rejected as eurocentric. The changes necessary for this transformation of China happened earlier and without Western intervention. (Klein 2009, p. 31)
        The opium wars and in particular the destruction of the Old Summer Palace 圆明园 (Yuánmíng Yuán / 御園 Yù Yuán) has been remembered by Chinese society since the 1890s as the "most egregious of the humiliations the country suffered at the hands of the West in the nineteenth century." (Mishra 2012, p. 38) Yan Fu 严复 (Yán Fù) describes another Chinese view of the opium wars, which was common sense from 1890 on (Mishra 2012, p. 37):
        When the Westerners first came, bringing with them immoral things that did harm to people [i.e., opium], and took up arms against us, this was not only a source of pain to those of us who were informed; it was then and remains even today a source of shame to the residents of their capital cities. At the time, China, which had enjoyed the protection of a series of sagacious rulers, and with its vast expanse of territory, was enjoyin a regime of unprecedented political and cultural prosperity. And when we looked about the world, we thought there were none nobler among the human race than we. (Huters 2005, p.65)
        Even if these examples are not up to date, it is understandable that the opium wars and the actions of the West are burned in the collective memory of the Chinese population.

        These attitudes, which allowed the Opium Wars in the first place, were and still are repeated in a (post)modern way. It still contains the binarity of the "Eastern" as the "Other" from a Western perspective. The commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption while the others privilege is eradicated through consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the other but denies the significance of the other's history (hooks 2015, p. 31) The "other" is introduced simultaneously as the exotic, luxurious, fragrant, sensual; as an escape from Western everyday life. In Black Opiums commercials of 2014, this phenomenon is particularly evident. Sex and nightlife are combined with the promise of the everyday life on hold. On our way through Shanghai, in search for the perfume, passing neon-shining Chinese Characters, we witness the crucial moment: two non-asian persons approach each other; almost a kiss; Pudong district, Shanghai. "What happens here will stay here“ – the far away exotic and foreign space marking a peak of freedom. This mode accompanies all campaigns until 2018. Work and lifestyle is mediated with western codes (such as white persons), so it can be sold better at Western customers (Fernholz 2013).
        Even after some years, and years after Yves Saint Laurent's death in June 2008, there is no statement or explanation released, which could clarify how he came to combine copied traditional ornaments and cuts with the name „Opium“.6 Almost obviously by now is a lack of historical sensitivity or even knowledge. Knowlege and understanding about certain events not only on the companies side but also of the foundations and museums working on relevant projects until now. The then creative director of Saint Laurent (Hedi Slimane) distanced himself from the series and stated, that he had nothing to do with Black Opium at all. (Weil 2014) The reason why he stated this, is not mentioned. As public figures and fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and his successors have the responsibility to act more consciously. All the more, because worldwide campaigns shape reality even more than the products for which these campaigns advertise. An interpretation of the whole as an artistic act or artistic intervention is to be ruled out, because any context and a “confession”7 was missing and is missing until now.


1 Unless otherwise stated, Yves Saint Laurent means the company, not the person. 
2 An interesting question could be, if it were the goal to turn the “male object” into a women's object, by making it a women's fragrance container.
3 The book Japanese Lacquer 1600-1900, part of Yves Saint Laurents private library was released in 1980. Therefore it is more likely, that Saint Laurent already saw similar objects during his first trip to Japan in 1963 oder later in 1975. 
4 The historical facts listed in this chapter (for example, historical events) are taken from Schmidt-Glintzer (1999) unless otherwise stated.
5 A significant role in England's superiority was played by the paddle steamer "Nemesis", whose shallow draft allowed vessels to penetrate large sections of China's rivers at relatively high speeds, leaving Chinese troops unprepared.
6 In Nanjing, one of the five treaty ports was forced through the Treaty of Nanjing following the first opium war in Britain.
7 I do not imply the need for an inherited debt to be payed or mourned, but a subjective feeling that arises from acts done by persons and acts that are linked to their existence in various ways.
8 The power of such a confession or dissolution becomes evident in the artwork Symbolic Threats, 2015, by Wermke / Leinkauf. The almost to the invisibility faded American flags, which instead of the usual flags on the Brooklyn Bridge blew, provide for amazement, uncertainty up to the fear, before for example an impending terrorist act. This fear is taken away by the dissolution of the artists, as well as possibly replaced by - in this example - an awareness of the lack of safety standards of this bridge.

Literature and Media
    Agence France-Presse (2000): China verbietet das Parfum „Opium“. In: FrankfurterAllgemeine Zeitung 8, 11.01.2000.
    Amy-Chinn, Dee (2001): Sex Offence: The Cultural Politics of Perfume. In: Women: ACultural Review 12 (2), S. 164–175. DOI: 10.1080/095740400110060210.
    Bentley, Vicci (2017): Opium’s racy 40th anniversary limited edition. Financial Times. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt aktualisiert am 30.10.2017, zuletzt geprüft am 22.03.2018.
    Beyme, Klaus von (2008): Vom Exotismus zur postkolonialen Kunst. Theoretisierung undPolitisierung der Kunst im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Vortrag des Preisträgers anlässlichder Verleihung des Schader-Preises am 8. Mai 2008 in Darmstadt. Schader Stiftung. Darmstadt. Online verfügbar unter, zuletzt geprüftam 04.04.2018.
    Branigan, Tania (2008): Chinese fury at sale of plundered treasures. The Guardian.
    China Daily (2009): China not to buy stolen relics at Paris auction. China Daily.
    Chu, Henry (2000): China Sees a Den of Indignity in Perfume. Los Angeles Times.
    Fernholz, Marissa (2013): Opium: Bottling and Commodifying the East. Drake University.
    Friedman, Monroe (1999): Consumer boycotts. Effecting change through the marketplace andthe media. New York: Routledge.
    hooks, bell (2015): Black looks. Race and representation. 2. Aufl. New York, NY: Routledge. Huters, Theodore (2005): Bringing the world home. Appropriating the West in late Qing andearly Republican China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
    Klein, Thoralf (2009): Geschichte Chinas. Von 1800 bis zur Gegenwart. 2., durchges. Aufl.Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich: Schöningh (UTB, 2838).
    Loughran, Kristyne (2009): The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion: Global Dialogues.In: Fashion Theory 13 (2), S. 243–271. DOI: 10.2752/175174109X414277.
    Meagher, Jennifer (2004): Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art. Department of EuropeanPaintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Mishra, Pankaj (2012): From the ruins of empire. The intellectuals who remade Asia. NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
    Nemy, Enid (1979): Chinese-americans join other groups in campaign against opium perfume. In: The New York Times, 24.04.1979, C13.
    Rodley, Chris (1997): Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber.Said, Edward W. (1979): Orientalism. 1. Aufl. New York: Vintage Books.
    Schmidt-Glintzer, Helwig (1999): Das neue China. Von den Opiumkriegen bis heute. Originalausgabe. München: C. H. Beck (Beck‘sche Reihe, 2126).
    Schultz, Joachim (1995): Wild, Irre & Rein. Wörterbuch zum Primitivismus der literarischen Avantgarden in Deutschland und Frankreich zwischen 1900 und 1940. Gießen.
    Spence, Jonathan D. (1990): The search for modern China. 1st ed. New York: Norton.Steele, Valerie (1997): Anti-Fashion: The 1970s. In: Fashion Theory 1 (3), S. 279–295. DOI:10.2752/136270497779640134.
    Weil, Jennifer (2014): Hedi Slimane Says ‘No’ to Black Opium. WWD.

    YSL Beauty (2017): BLACK OPIUM FLORAL SHOCK Yves Saint Laurent – The NewFeminine Fragrance 60s.