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] Although the non-medicinal consumption of opium was banned by the Yongzheng Emperor in 1729, by the 1830s China's economy and society were being damaged by increased imports by Chinese smugglers who illegally bought opium from British and American traders. 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] By 1817, the British hit upon 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. 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 competence and high moral standards, 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 western merchants' enclave. 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 laboured 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. Lin composed an elegy apologizing to the gods of the sea for polluting their realm.[10] 26 June is now the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in honour of Lin Zexu's work.

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] 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)[11][12]

The Royal Open Letter was prevented from reaching the Queen by shipping merchants, who attacked the Emperor`s forces before the Letter could have been acted on by Her Majesty. Belatedly, after the merchants had drawn Her Majesty`s forces into war, it was delivered and published in The Times.[13]

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.[14] Soon, however, Qing imperial forces were faced with a British imperial force which included stream warships and improved weapons, and were soon routed.[2]

Exile in Xinjiang[edit]

Lin made significant preparation for war against the possible British invasion. The British sailed north to attack Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The governors of these two provinces failed to heed a warning from Lin, however, and were unprepared when the British easily landed and occupied Dinghai.

Because of this defeat, and also because of the intrinsic behaviour of Chinese imperial political structure of the Qing dynasty, 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 .[15]

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.[16]

Death and legacy[edit]

Fuzhou Memorial Hall of Lin Zexu
Hall in the Hong Kong Museum of History dedicated to the Opium wars and the concession of Hong Kong to the British, 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. Although he led the war against opium with initial success, he had been made the scapegoat for the actions leading to British retaliation, and ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium import and use in China.[17] Nevertheless, Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of superlative conduct and national service, and whose likeness have been immortalized at various locations around the world.[18][19][20][21]

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.[22]

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]

More recently, Lin Zexu has appeared as a character in River of Smoke, the second novel in the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, which takes the Opium Wars as its setting to shed new light on a much-repressed history while offering a contemporary critique of globalization.[23] The novel takes place in 1838–1839, during which time Commissioner Lin arrived in Canton and tensions escalated between the foreigners and the Chinese officials.

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.

Three films have been made on his role in the Opium Wars such that he is now one of the symbols of modern China's resistance to European imperialism.

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. ^ Chang (1964), pp. 173-174.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ J.L.Schuck: Portfolio Chinensis . 1840 (googlebooks)
  13. ^ The Opium Wars Hanes, W. Travis, et al., p. 41 ISBN 0-7607-7638-5
  14. ^ P.C.Kuo: A critical study of the first Anglo-Chinese War . Hyperion 1973, reprint.(Shanghai Commercial Press 1935)
  15. ^ 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)
  16. ^ Newby, L.J. (1999), "The Chinese Literary Conquest of Xinjiang", Modern China 25 (4): 451–474, doi:10.1177/009770049902500403, JSTOR 189447 
  17. ^ East Asian Studies
  18. ^ Monument to the People's Heroes, Beijing – Lonely Planet Travel Guide
  19. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial
  20. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial Museum | Ola Macau Travel Guide
  21. ^ "China Commemorates Anti-opium Hero". Global Times. June 4, 2009. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  22. ^ David Chen, Chinatown's Fujianese Get a Statue, New York Times, 20 November 1997.
  23. ^ Long, strange trip: River of Smoke finds globalization's roots in the Opium Wars

References and further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Deng Tingzhen
Viceroy of Liangguang
Succeeded by