Lin Zexu

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Lin Zexu
Commissioner Lin 2.png
An 1843 drawing of Lin
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
Preceded by Li Xingyuan (Li Hsing-yüan)[1]
Succeeded by Cheng Yuzai (Ch'eng Yü-tsai)[1]
Viceroy of Huguang
In office
Personal details
Born (1785-08-30)30 August 1785
Fuzhou, Fujian Province
Died 22 November 1850(1850-11-22) (aged 65)
Puning, Guangdong Province
Occupation Politician
Military service
Battles/wars First Opium War
Lin Zexu
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-official of the Qing dynasty best known for his role in the First Opium War of 1839–42. He was from Fuzhou, Fujian Province. Lin's forceful opposition to the opium trade was a primary catalyst for the First Opium War. He is praised for his constant position on the "moral high ground" in his fight, but he is also blamed for a rigid approach which failed to account for the domestic and international complexities of the problem.[2] The Daoguang Emperor endorsed the hardline policies advocated by Lin, but then blamed Lin for the resulting disastrous war.[3]

Early life and career[edit]

Lin was born in Houguan (侯官; modern Fuzhou, Fujian Province) towards the end of the Qianlong Emperor's reign. His father, Lin Binri (林賓日), served as an official under the Qing government. He was the second son in the family. As a child, he was already "unusually brilliant".[4] In 1811, he obtained the position of a jinshi in the imperial examination, and in the same year he gained admission to the Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service. He opposed the opening of China but felt the need of a better knowledge of foreigners, which drove him to collect 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.[3]

Campaign to suppress opium[edit]

Lin supervising the destruction of opium

In March 1839, Lin arrived in Guangdong Province to take measures that would eliminate the opium trade.[5] He was a formidable bureaucrat known for his competence and high moral standards, with an imperial commission from the Daoguang Emperor to halt the illegal importation of opium by the British.[6][7] Upon arrival, he made changes within a matter of months.[6] 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. Lin resorted to using force in the western merchants' enclave. A month and a half later, the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kg (2.6 million pounds) of opium. Beginning 3 June 1839, 500 workers laboured for 23 days to destroy it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the sea outside of Humen Town. Lin composed an elegy apologising to the gods of the sea for polluting their realm.[8] 26 June is now the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in honour of Lin'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. He argued that China was providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, with Britain sending only "poison" in return.[6] 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 accused the "barbarians" 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 wrote:

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)[9]

The letter to the Queen never reached her. Belatedly, it was delivered and published in The Times of London.[10]

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, and the peril to British traders who would surrender their opium. Moreover, the British viewed the opening of China to free trade as a moral issue as well.[3]

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 Charles Elliot and Lin, banned 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.[11] Soon, however, the Chinese forces faced a British naval fleet, which included the East India Company's steam warship Nemesis and improved weapons, and were soon routed.[3]

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.

Lin became a scapegoat for these losses due to court politics. As punishment, he was exiled to the remote Ili region in Xinjiang. His position was then given to Qishan in September 1840.

While in Xinjiang, Lin was the first Chinese scholar to record 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.[12]

The Qing government ultimately rehabilitated Lin. In 1845, he was appointed governor-general of Shaanxi-Gansu (Shaan-Gan). In 1847. he became governor-general of Yunnan-Guizhou (Yun-Gui). These posts were less prestigious than his previous position in Canton, thus his career never fully recovered from the failures there.[13]

Death and legacy[edit]

The Lin Zexu Memorial in Fuzhou from 2004
Statue of Lin Zexu in Chatham Square in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City, United States

Lin died in 1850 while on the way to Guangxi Province, where the Qing government was sending him to help put down the Taiping Rebellion. Though he was originally blamed for causing the First Opium War, Lin's reputation was rehabilitated in the last years of the Qing dynasty, as efforts were made once more to eradicate opium production and trade. He became a symbol of the fight against opium, with his image displayed in parades, and his writings quoted approvingly by anti-opium reformers.[14]

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."

Lin's former home, situated in Fuzhou's historic Sanfang-Qixiang ("Three Lanes and Seven Alleys") district, is open to the public. Inside, his work as a government official, including the opium trade and other work where he improved agricultural methods, championed water conservation (including his work to save Fuzhou's West Lake from becoming a rice field) and his campaign against corruption are well documented.

In China, Lin is popularly viewed as a national hero. June 3, the day when Lin confiscated the chests of opium, is celebrated as Anti-Smoking Day in Taiwan. Monuments to Lin have been constructed in Chinese communities around the world.[15][16] A statue of Lin stands in Chatham Square in Chinatown, New York City, United States. The base of the statue is inscribed with "Pioneer in the war against drugs" in English and Chinese.[17][18]A wax statue of Lin also appeared in Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.[6]

More recently, Lin 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 globalisation.[19] The novel takes place in 1838–1839, during which time Lin arrived in Canton and tensions escalated between the foreigners and the Chinese officials.

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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b China Provinces and Administrative Divisions
  2. ^ Spence (1999), p. 131.
  3. ^ a b c d Spence (1999), pp. 152–158.
  4. ^ Lee 2005, p. 3.
  5. ^ Lovell (2011), p. 53.
  6. ^ a b c d de Bary & Lufrano 2000, pp. 201–204.
  7. ^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais 2006, p. 379.
  8. ^ Chang (1964), pp. 173–174.
  9. ^ From Ssu-yu Teng and John Fairbank, eds.,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, 1995), pp. 266–69 and available at
  10. ^ Hanes & Sanello 2004, p. 41.
  11. ^ Kuo 1973.
  12. ^ Newby, L.J. (1999), "The Chinese Literary Conquest of Xinjiang", Modern China, 25 (4): 451–474, JSTOR 189447, doi:10.1177/009770049902500403 
  13. ^ On the progress of war, and Lin Zexu's role, see Kuo 1973.
  14. ^ Madancy 2003, pp. 96–97.
  15. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial
  16. ^ Lin Zexu Memorial Museum | Ola Macau Travel Guide
  17. ^ David Chen, Chinatown's Fujianese Get a Statue, New York Times, 20 November 1997.
  18. ^ Kimlau Square Monuments - Lin Ze Xu : NYC Parks
  19. ^ Long, strange trip: River of Smoke finds globalization's roots in the Opium Wars


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Deng Tingzhen
Viceroy of Liangguang
Succeeded by