In late nineteenth-century China, you knew a guy that smoked opium.
About ten percent of China’s total population, roughly 40 million people, was hooked on the drug. Today, that’d be like if every California resident, or every person in Poland and Uruguay combined, smoked the stuff.
Many countries were responsible for this Chinese opium epidemic, America included. After selling them most of the opium, the U.S. put a 10-year Chinese immigration ban into effect, citing they didn’t want Chinese opium smokers “ruining the country”.
But China was left to deal with the problem on its own. They started by making the drug illegal. Opioids weren’t new, but had just started to enjoy mainstream success. At the time, American doctors called opium a good morphine substitute for pain, which isn’t so bad, when you consider that in Germany, kids suffering from colds were prescribed black tar heroin.
But even with the nationwide ban, opium continued to grow in popularity. It was cool, plus opium’s highly addictive. The more ubiquitous it became, however, the less people seemed to care.
If you wanted to stand out as an opium smoker—and as you know, most opium smokers are highly ambitious—you had to be innovative.
So one day, a Chinese man took his pipe, or bong, or whatever it is that you smoke opium out of, and placed it on his den floor. This served two purposes: first, the pillow-covered floor was a comfortable surface to get high on; and second, no one smoked opium this way, so it looked cool and probably impressed his friends.
The man immediately realized he was onto something. Never before had he felt such comfort while smoking opium.
Unfortunately, his friends saw how great it looked and started doing their drugs on the floor, too.
This man, who’d had a younger sibling growing up and therefore hated being copied, was unhappy. So he decided to find a newer, even comfier position.
But he also needed something that could accommodate his limitations. Though he was only 18, the man had an arthritic hip. After all, he’d had a full-time job since he was 4 years old.
So next time the man got high, he not only sat on the floor but also leaned back on one hip—the good one—and positioned himself at a 45-degree angle to his smoking apparatus.
And what he found astonished him.
This position was even cooler and even cozier than sitting on the floor, and it felt good on his bad hip. This half-sitting half-lying posture was so pleasant, in fact, that thereafter, he refused to smoke opium any other way.
“Ha!” he said. “That'll show my noncreative opium-addicted friends!”
But much to his chagrin, his friends, all of whom lacked the initiative to find their own drug-taking posture, copied the one-hip thing from him, too. They probably also asked if he had any food they could eat, but he did not, because again, he was addicted to opium, and that shit ain’t cheap.
This time, however, it wasn’t just his friends that caught on. Word spread all across China that leaning back on one’s hip while smoking opium was the bee’s knee. Everyone started doing it.
Naturally, this upset the man who invented the pose even more.
“Why is everyone copying the way I smoke opium?” he said, probably. “It’s not cool if everyone does it!”
But it was too late. Pretty much everyone did it this way now. The one-hip opium smoking pose had gone viral.
Displeased, the man began looking for a third, even cooler, even cozier way to smoke opium. He tried smoking on his stomach, but he didn’t like it. He tried smoking in his bed, but he set his sheets on fire. He even went back to the way people used to smoke opium, hoping it might catch on and become cool again.
His one-hip creation was the best, most comfortable way to get a fix. He, and everyone else, knew it. Upset, the man went back to getting high while leaning back one hip. Perhaps he was so upset by the matter that he quit smoking opium altogether. Probably not, though.
The story of one man’s quest to find the coolest, coziest way to smoke opium mirrors a truth in modern society. For reasons we can’t always explain, certain ideas and actions get noticed, and occasionally, one spirals into a cultural revolution. If this happened today, this man’s innovation would’ve surely been made into a series of memes.
People in China, America, and across Europe would smoke their opium like he did. The man might not have liked that everyone copied him, but once the genie was out of the bottle, there’d be little he could do.
Little did the man know, though, he started a revolution. Not only did his subtle innovation change the lives of many opium smokers, but it also put words to a future revolution he could have never foreseen.
Because believe it or not, even in late nineteenth-century China, they had a name for people who smoked opium while leaning on one hip:
They were called hipsters.
And like today’s men with man buns and foodies in Brooklyn, a hipster, no matter year it is, is someone always on the lookout for the new, best way to do something. Especially if doing it that way might help him stand out.
The man, who clearly had some character flaws and a bit of an ego complex, would’ve been happy to know he’d go down in history.
I say “would’ve” because he didn’t live very long. You know, because he was addicted to opium.