Commissioner Lin Zexu and the Opium War.

The Opium Wars (1839 – 1842, 1856 – 1860) are generally seen as bringing modernity to China’s history, however, it has disillusioned Chinese patriots and embarrassed diligent Westerners ever since. In present-day China, it is used not only as evidence of incorrigible Western wickedness, but specifically as proof that free-enterprise capitalism leads to aggressive imperialism which allies with conservative feudalism to the disadvantage of the common people.  This paper claims that although Lin Zexu (Wade-Giles: Lin Tse-hsü, 1785 – 1850) was looked at as a failure to the emperor of China at the time, his actions were earnest and appreciated. The opium epidemic and the occupation of British forces were staggeringly out of control and the Qing Empire was facing a dilemma to which Confucius himself may not have been able to provide a proper solution.

When Lin Zexu was born on 30 August 1785, he was named after the popular Fujian governor, Xu Xilin, a self-fullfilling prophecy as Lin became a prominent statesman in his own right.[1] At the age of nineteen, Lin achieved the chu jen degree, and began working for Governor Zhang Xin-zheng where Lin learned a great deal regarding law and punishment, military defense, and administrative processes.[2] He rose to the position of governor of Kiangsu in 1832 and had already gained prominence for his accomplishments in water conservation, flood control, social relief, and supervision of tax collection before being considered to take on the opium epidemic.[3]

As Governor-General of Huguang (later partitioned into the provinces of Hubei and Hunan) in 1838, he successfully rid his jurisdiction of opium. Although known as an honest, old fashioned, well-informed official, Lin was unaware of the British involvement in the Napoleonic wars (1803 – 1815) and did not see them as a viable threat.[4] On 31 December 1838, Lin was appointed Commissioner to Canton with full authority to give all orders that might be deemed necessary to eradicate the opium traffic forever.[5] Although Lin did not see the British as a threat, the odds were not in his favor, as the opium traffic had gone on for over a century and opium addiction had spread into a national pandemic. When he was appointed to this new post, he knew that he had been “personally involved in a crisis,” and initially attempted to decline the appointment because he “knew clearly that he was entering into a trap.”[6]

In addition to punishing merchants harshly, and setting up an infirmary where addicts could turn themselves in to be cured of their addiction, Lin instituted an intricate and multifaceted control system. First, he ordered a set of registers to be kept by innkeepers and landlords, and presented for official inspection every five days, to keep track of the transients who moved in and out of the city. Second, he established five men mutual–security groups for officials, soldiers, and yamen clerks. Third, he supplied harsh penalties for smokers, dealers, and peddlers within the city, and high rewards to informants. Finally, Lin had publicly proclaimed that the old pao-chia (an antiquated system designed to ensure that no individual disturbed the social order) had failed to work because its guarantors were not dependable.[7] These policies projected the effect of dislocation and terror, as many smokers were executed, imprisoned, or hospitalized; the prisons were crowded with innocent victims. While many perished while incarcerated, the informers prospered, capitalists were purposely involved to get possession of their property. As the legal trade was at an end, the drug was, when the panic had passed, resumed with greater vigor.[8]  Lin Zexu persuaded the Emperor that the importers and distributers of the drug, rather than the users themselves, had to bear the principal force of government punishment. By July 1839, Lin had arrested about 1700 native offenders and confiscated 44,000 pounds of opium and over 70,000 opium pipes.[9]

Lin evoked another policy to break the intake of opium at the Canton port; first, to arrest and punish some of the well-known Chinese opium traffickers to frighten away the others; second, to pressure the merchants to be faithful to the government and wash their hands of the deadly drug; and third, to severely punish the foreigners and to deal a death blow to their well-established black market drug trade.[10] Lin was genuinely convinced that the merchants had betrayed their country for the sake of commerce. He declared a boycott against the British and persistently criticized the Chinese merchants, calling them chien-shang (treacherous merchants) or han-chien (traitor) for continuing their deceitful work.[11]

In trying to combat the importation of the drug, Lin demanded that the foreigners bequeath the drug trade. His attempt to reason with the British took the appearance of a message to Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) in which Lin claims that “The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians… By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Where is your conscience?”[12] The British first ignored the order, than flat out refused; therefore Lin stopped all trade and set up a siege of the factories and their 350 foreigners. They held out for six weeks, finally succumbing in spring 1839, and delivering over 21,000 chests of opium to Lin, who promptly had 500 laborers dig three immense trenches – seven feet deep, 25 feet wide, and 150 feet long, filled them with the confiscated opium, water, and added a mix of salt and lime to make the drug useless.[13] The British superintendent of trade, Captain Charles Elliot (1801 – 1875) demanded compensation for the destruction of the drug, which Lin refused on the grounds that opium was an illegal product. Lin’s refusal to reimburse the British provided them with an excuse for war.[14]

As the opium trade was stagnating due to the irascible prohibition measures set forth by Lin, Captain Elliot saw the confiscation of opium by the Chinese at Canton as a step quite favorable to the interests of the British merchants.[15] It was no longer Lin punishing opium traders and confiscating the contraband; it was now a larger issue, involving the two governments. A petition, signed by the British firms and merchants residing in China, was presented to Lord Palmerston (1784 – 1865), the Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs, urging British military involvement in order to put the trade with China on a permanent and secure basis.[16] In London, numerous pamphlets and articles appeared in late 1839 and early 1840 explaining how the British flag had been insulted by the Chinese and British merchants were being imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death.[17] Minor incidents between the Chinese and the British occurred in the last half of 1839 at Chien-sha-tsui, Macao, and along the Canton River, escalating tensions between the two empires.[18] On 3 November 1839, the battle of Chuenpee was a display of British empirical control, as it only took the British forty-five minutes to destroy an entire Chinese naval fleet with only two frigates. Commissioner Lin reported back to the emperor with uneasy dishonesty, praising the actions of Admiral Guan Tianpei (1781 – 1841), and mentioning that some cannonading took place.  The emperor, believing that he had scored a victory, awarded Guan high decorations for his success.[19]  Through the winter of 1839 – 1840, the British were forming an expedition of intimidating magnitudes as the drug traffic was once again on the rise.[20] In the June 1840 issue of the Chinese Repository, the people of China seem to be confident that the British will not use extreme force on their nation, it states, “Some even seem to doubt its (the British expedition) coming, though preparations are making to resist they know not what, The state of public affairs remains quiet. With deep anxiety we await the arrival of the expedition and its consequent events.”[21] Before the end of June, sixteen warships and twenty-seven transports carrying 4000 Irish, Scotch and Indian troops had arrived; a fleet far larger than any the Chinese had ever seen.  Lin was not intimidated, he was confident that they would not “create disturbances,” and described them as “rats (that) will enter all the ways in order to protect those base followers who sell opium.”[22]

After a summer of blockades and bombardments, Elliot presented a letter from Lord Palmerston to the emperor in August 1840. Much of the letter consisted of grievances regarding Commissioner Lin’s dealings at Canton, and the emperor took these complaints as being directed at Lin Zexu personally.[23] Hence the emperor guilelessly felt that the trouble with the British could be solved if he agreed to castigate one man. Although for the past eighteen months the emperor had nothing but praise and encouragement for Lin, he felt that the British held Lin responsible, and the emperor would do whatever it took to display his forte as he attempted to display abject appeasement to the British forces.

Lin was much more concerned with implementing reforms than his own political career and many of his memorials to the Emperor were written with radical ideals to persuade rather than please him.[24] Commenting on Lin’s explanation of what had gone wrong, the emperor wrote that Lin had “caused the waves of confusion to arise” and “a thousand interminable disorders “to grow. “In fact, you appear as if your arms were tied without knowing what to do. It appears that you are no better than a wooden image.”[25] In September 1840, Grand Secretary Qishan (1786 – 1854) was sent to Guangzhou to replace the disgraced Lin Zexu.[26] Lin was then sent into exile in Turkestan for four years. An excerpt from an edict written by the Emperor accuses Zexu of failing to stop the illegal drug traffic and lays the complete blame of China’s present state on Lin, stating that “All these (problems with the British) are due to the mismanagement by Lin Zexu.”[27]

After Lin was exiled, he reflected on his role as Commissioner and began to finally recognize Western superiority. In a private letter to a friend in 1842, he writes, “I took the risk of calling the Emperor’s attention to two things: ships and guns. If these things could have been made and prepared, they still could have been used with effect to fight against the enemy…Ships, guns, and a water force are absolutely indispensable. Even if rebellious barbarians had fled, these things would still have to be urgently planned for, in order to work out the permanent defense of our sea frontiers.”[28]

The Opium War could have been avoided by the legalization of the opium trade and by China’s relinquishment of legal jurisdiction over foreigners, a stand which neither the emperor nor Lin Zexu would accept. Foreign nations continued to import opium into the country despite Chinese laws forbidding its sale and use well into the twentieth century. In 1839, about 40,000 opium chests were smuggled into China, by 1884, the number had more than doubled to 81,000.[29] The failure of the anti-opium campaign was due more to the inherent weakness of the Qing dynasty than to the actions of any one individual, even Commissioner Lin Zexu.


Jason Hedman, Kenosha, WI. 2012.

[1] Hsin-pao Chang, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), P. 121.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chang, P. 122.

[4] Maurice Collins, Foreign Mud. (London: Faber and Faber Unlimited, 1946),  P. 203-204.

[5] Collins, P. 205.

[6] Tan Chung, China and the Brave New World: A Study of the Origins of the Opium War, 1840 – 42. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 1978), P.187.

[7] Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839 – 1861. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), P. 35.

[8] Wakeman, Jr. P. 36.

[9] R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History. (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2002), P. 53.

[10] Chung, P. 192.

[11] Wakeman, Jr. P. 48-49.

[12] Ssu-yu Teng & John K. Fairbank. China’s Response to the West. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), P. 25.

[13] Schoppa, P. 53.

[14] William T. Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), P. 170.

[15] Chang. P. 165.

[16] Chang, P. 192.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Chang, P. 195-198.

[19] Collins, P. 261.

[20] Collins, P. 289.

[21] Collins, P. 293.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Chang, P. 210.

[24] Chang, P. 123.

[25] Schoppa, P. 54.

[26] Rowe, P. 170

[27] Chung, P. 216.

[28] J. Mason Gentzler, Changing China: Reading in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977), P. 35.

[29] Schoppa. P. 54.


About jasonhedman

Jason Hedman is an artist and writer residing in the Chicagoland area. His artwork is consistently striving to break from any 'style-cell' that may have formed around him. Currently he is working mostly in acrylics, although he has spent much time working in watercolor, fingernail clippings, pencils, and digital art. "When I was a little boy, I would draw out my own comics like most other kids, but I would also make my own film advertisements, make up names of films, most of them starring me and my friends, and design logos, make up quotes, artwork, showtimes, ratings, the whole she-bang. I really wish I had a few of those still around. I must have done hundreds of them. So it was no surprise when I found myself interested in layout and design as an adult." Jason Hedman was born a member of Generation-X in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Throughout his younger years, Hedman discovered his love for layout and design while creating show flyers, logos, and CD packaging for local bands. In 2005, Jason Hedman began his college education at Gateway Technical College, seeking an Associate Degree in Graphic Arts. Throughout his tenure at Gateway, he included on the Dean's List on two occasions. In the spring of 2008, Hedman stirred controversy at the Gateway Student Design Show when his piece "Cannibal Gourmet" was banned from the show for its graphic parody. Hedman graduated from Gateway in May, 2008 in the Graphic Arts-Mixed Media program. In the fall of 2008, Hedman began studying at the University of Wisconsin - Parkside. While taking general History classes. Hedman's love for history was rediscovered and he added History as a second major along with his intended Art degree. It was during this time, that Hedman began finding new and interesting ways to convey his art. During his five-year tenure at the University of Wisconsin, Hedman was honored to be on the Dean's List on three occasions. After graduating with two Bachelor's degrees, as well as a certification in Film Studies, in the spring of 2013, Hedman immediately found employment two days after graduation at Carmichael Communications, where he began as a layout editor. This job quickly expanded to include photography, writing editorial, and even producing a daily radio show. One day, Hedman decided to update his resume and realized that he needed some type of biography, so he sat down and wrote this.
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3 Responses to Commissioner Lin Zexu and the Opium War.

  1. Pingback: On 22 November in Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  2. Pingback: On 22 November in Chinese history including Taiwan | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  3. Pingback: Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence - Family Lines

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