Lin Zexu

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This is a Chinese name; the family name is Lin.
Lin Zexu
Commissioner Lin.jpg
A Chinese drawing of Lin (published 1843)
Viceroy of Liangguang
In office
21 January 1840 – 3 October 1840
Preceded by Deng Tingzhen
Succeeded by Qishan
Viceroy of Shaan-Gan
In office
Viceroy of Yun-Gui
In office
Viceroy of Huguang
In office
Personal details
Born (1785-08-30)30 August 1785
Fuzhou, Fujian
Died 22 November 1850(1850-11-22) (aged 65)
Puning, Guangdong
Occupation Politician
Military service
Battles/wars First Opium War
Lin Zexu
Destroy opium 2.jpg
A painting of Lin supervising the destruction of opium
Traditional Chinese 林則徐
Simplified Chinese 林则徐
Courtesy name
Traditional Chinese 元撫
Simplified Chinese 元抚

Lin Zexu (30 August 1785 – 22 November 1850), courtesy name Yuanfu, was a Chinese scholar and official of the Qing dynasty.

Lin's forceful opposition to the opium trade on economic, moral, and social grounds is considered to be the primary catalyst for the First Opium War of 1839–42. He is praised for his constant position on the "moral high ground" in his fight and blamed for a rigid approach which did not realize the domestic and international complexities of the problem.[1] The Daoguang emperor endorsed the hard line policies advocated by Lin, but then blamed Lin for the resulting disastrous war.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Lin was born in Houguan (侯官; modern Fuzhou, Fujian). The second son of the family, his father was Bin Re, a Chinese official active in the Qing dynasty. As a child, he was already "unusually brilliant".[3] In 1811, he received a jinshi degree in the imperial examination, and in the same year, he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service. He was opposed to the opening of China but felt the need of a better knowledge of foreigners, which drove him to collect much material for a geography of the world. He later gave this material to Wei Yuan, who published the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms in 1843. He became Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837, where he launched a suppression campaign against the trading of opium.[2]

Campaign to suppress opium[edit]

An ever-growing demand for tea and low demand for British products, combined with the acceptance by China of only silver (and not gold) in payment, resulted in large continuous trade deficits.[4] Attempts by the British (Macartney in 1792), the Dutch (Van Braam in 1794), Russia (Golovkin in 1805) and the British yet again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were resounding failures.[5] After 1817, the British began counter-trading in Indian opium, as a way to both reduce the trade deficit and finally gain profit from the formerly money-losing Indian colony. Opium was most commonly used as a treatment for cholera. The Qing government originally tolerated the importation of opium because it imposed an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England, which profited the monopoly for tea exports of the Qing imperial treasury and its agents. However, by 1820, accelerated opium consumption reversed the flow of silver, just when the Qing imperial treasury needed to finance the suppression of rebellions within China. The Viceroy of Guangdong began efforts to constrain the trade, but due to large increases in the supply of opium, the large coast line of South China, and corruption (the Qing coastal navy was one of the largest smugglers of opium), these efforts failed.[6] Meanwhile, memorials received from officials such as Huang Juezi urged the Daoguang Emperor to take measures that would eliminate the opium trade.[7]

A formidable bureaucrat known for his adherence to Confucian values, Lin was sent to Guangdong as imperial commissioner by the emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium by the British.[8][9] He arrived in March 1839 and made a huge impact on the opium trade within a matter of months.[8] He arrested more than 1,700 Chinese opium dealers and confiscated over 70,000 opium pipes. He initially attempted to get foreign companies to forfeit their opium stores in exchange for tea, but this ultimately failed and Lin resorted to using force in the merchants' enclave despite previous agreements and understandings. It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. Beginning 3 June 1839, 500 workers labored for 23 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the sea outside of Humen Town.

In 1839, Lin also wrote an extraordinary memorial to Queen Victoria in the form of an open letter published in Canton, urging her to end the opium trade. The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality. His primary line of argument is that China is providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, while Britain sends only "poison" in return.[8] Lin appears to have been unaware that opium was not banned in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, and was commonly used for its medicinal rather than recreational effects. He accuses the "barbarians" (a reference to the private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that the Queen would act "in accordance with decent feeling" and support his efforts. He writes:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?

—Lin Zexu, Open letter addressed to the sovereign of England and published in Canton (1839)[10][11]

Commissioner Lin and the Daoguang emperor, comments historian Jonathan Spence, "seemed to have believed that the citizens of Canton and the foreign traders there had simple, childlike natures that would respond to firm guidance and statements of moral principles set out in simple, clear terms." Neither Lin nor the emperor appreciated the depth or changed nature of the problem. They did not see the change in international trade structures, the commitment of the British government to protecting the interests of private traders (a commitment the Qing government would never have thought of), and the peril to the survival of the British traders posed when they surrendered their opium. Moreover, the British viewed the opening of China to free trade as a moral issue as well.[2]

Open hostilities between China and Britain started in 1839 in what later would be called "The First Opium War." The immediate effect was that both sides, by the words of Superintendent Captain Charles Elliot, and the Chinese High-Commissioner Lin Zexu made a ban to all trade. Before this, Lin had pressured the Portuguese government of Macau, so the British found themselves without refuge, except for the bare and rocky harbours of Hong Kong.[12] Soon, however, Qing imperial forces were faced with a British imperial force, which included the East India Company's steam warship Nemesis and improved weapons, and were soon routed.[2]

Exile in Xinjiang[edit]

Because of this defeat, Lin was popularized as a scapegoat for these losses. His position was then given to Qishan in September 1840. As punishment for his failures, Lin was exiled to the remote Ili region in Xinjiang.

The Qing government ultimately considered Lin to be an official of rare virtue, however, and in 1845 he was appointed as governor-general of Shaanxi-Gansu (Shaan-Gan). In 1847 he became governor-general of Yunnan-Guizhou (Yun-Gui). But these posts were less prestigious than his previous position in Canton, and his career did not fully recover from the failures there .[13]

While in Xinjiang, Lin was the first Chinese scholar to take note of several aspects of Muslim culture there. In 1850, he noted in a poem that the Muslims in Ili did not worship idols but bowed and prayed to tombs decorated with poles that had the tails of cows and horses attached to them. This was the widespread shamanic practice of erecting a tugh, but this was its first recorded appearance in Chinese writings. He also recorded several Kazakh oral tales, such as one concerning a green goat spirit of the lake whose appearance is a harbinger of hail or rain.[14]

Governor of Yunnan[edit]

In 1847, Lin was appointed as Governor-General of Yunnan province, which was engulfed in multiple conflicts between the local Hui population and Han immigrants. The massacre of eight thousand Hui by Han Chinese militias, the Baoshan Massace of 1845 threatened to start full-scale conflict between the two communities. [15]

Governor Lin's report on the massacre downplayed the number of Hui killed and did not mention the particpation of Han local elites and even government officials in instigating attacks on the Hui. [16] Lin's solution to the ethnic tensions in Yunnan was to relocate the Hui into a more isolated area, in the rugged terrain along the Salween river valley. This policy of "ethnically-based banishment" would have removed the Hui from their homes and trade routes, and was rejected.[17]

Lin was recalled from Yunnan in 1849 and was perceived by the Imperial Court to have performed well, he was awarded a prestigous title, but his ethnic discrimination against the Hui were a factor in the start of the Panthay Rebellion.

Death and legacy[edit]

Fuzhou Memorial Hall of Lin Zexu
Hall in the Hong Kong Museum of History , with a statue of Lin Zexu
Statue of Lin Zexu in New York City, United States.
Statue of Lin Zexu at Haw Par Villa, Singapore.

Lin died in 1850 while on the way to Guangxi, where the Qing government was sending him to help put down the Taiping Rebellion.

June 3, the day when Lin confiscated the chests of opium, is celebrated as Anti-Smoking Day in the Republic of China Taiwan. A statue of Lin stands in Chatham Square (Kimlau Square) in Chinatown, New York City, United States. The base of the statue is inscribed with "Don't do drugs" in English and Chinese. The statue faces what has been dubbed "Fuzhou Street" which means his back is turned to the Manhattan Detention Complex and the city's main police station.[18]

Despite the antagonism between the Chinese and the British at the time, the English sinologist Herbert Giles praised and admired Lin: "He was a fine scholar, a just and merciful official and a true patriot." A wax statue of Lin also appeared in Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.[8]

The period has also been examined in Timothy Mo's novel An Insular Possession, which explores the birth of Hong Kong in the context of the Opium Wars.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spence, Jonathan D. (1999), The Search for Modern China, New York/London: W.W.Norton, p. 131 
  2. ^ a b c d Spence, op.cit., pp.152–158.
  3. ^ Lee 2005, p. 3.
  4. ^ Peyrefitte 1992 p520
  5. ^ Peyrefitte 1993, p487-503
  6. ^ Peyrefitte, 1993 p520-521
  7. ^ Lovell (2011), p. 53.
  8. ^ a b c d De Bary, Wm. Theodore; Lufrano, Richard (2000), Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century 2, Columbia University Press, pp. 201–204, ISBN 978-0-231-11271-0 
  9. ^ Ebrey, Patricia Buckley; Walthall, Anne; Palais, James B. (2006), East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 379, ISBN 0-618-13384-4 
  10. ^ From Ssu-yu Teng and John Fairbank, China's Response to the West, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), repr. in Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources of World History, Volume II, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 266–69 and available at
  11. ^ J.L.Schuck: Portfolio Chinensis . 1840 (googlebooks)
  12. ^ P.C.Kuo: A critical study of the first Anglo-Chinese War . Hyperion 1973, reprint.(Shanghai Commercial Press 1935)
  13. ^ On the progress of war, and Lin Zexu's role, cf. P.C.Kuo: A critical study of the first Anglo-Chinese War . Hyperion 1973, reprint.(Shanghai Commercial Press 1935)
  14. ^ Newby, L.J. (1999), "The Chinese Literary Conquest of Xinjiang", Modern China 25 (4): 451–474, doi:10.1177/009770049902500403, JSTOR 189447 
  15. ^ The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873. David Atwill. Stanford, 2005. p. 77
  16. ^ The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873. David Atwill. Stanford, 2005. p. 78-79.
  17. ^ The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873. David Atwill. Stanford, 2005. p. 80
  18. ^ David Chen, Chinatown's Fujianese Get a Statue, New York Times, 20 November 1997.

References and further reading[edit]

  • Chang, Hsin-pao (1964). Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Cambridge,: Harvard University Press. 
  • Hummel, Arthur William, ed. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644–1912). 2 vols. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1943
  • Lovell, Julia (2011). Opium War. London: Picador. ISBN 9780330537858. 
  • Alain Peyrefitte, The Immobile Empire-- The first great collision of East and West – the astonishing history of Britain's grand, ill-fated expedition to open China to Western Trade, 1792–94 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
  • Arthur Waley The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958; reprinted Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1968)
  • Lee, Khoon Choy (1 January 2005). Pioneers of Modern China: Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese. World Scientific. ISBN 978-981-270-090-2. 
  • Atwill, David. The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Deng Tingzhen
Viceroy of Liangguang
Succeeded by