The Beginning of the Opium Wars

On 3 June 1839 a Chinese patriot, moralist, and scholar-official of the Qing dynasty named Lin Tse-hsü (his name was also spelled Lin Zexu, and he additionally went by the courtesy name Yuanfu) ordered the destruction of approximately 1.2 million kg (2.6 million poiunds) of opium from British merchants in Guangdong Province. There was so much opium that took almost a month for the 500 workers to mix all the opium with lime and salt and pour it into the sea at the docks in Humen Town.

Destruction_of_opium_in_1839 by Yanfu

Although he was born a second-son to a minor official, Lin’s brilliance and dedication had facilitated his rise until he became the Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837. He had strong moral and rational objections to allowing the British empire to flood the Chinese market with an addictive and destructive drug just so the UK could ease its tea trade deficit. For some odd reason he didn’t think opium was good for the Chinese people and that the British had no right to use China as a dumping ground for poison as a way to make some of their money back in the tea trade.

Silly man! Valuing the lives of his fellow Chinese over British economic concerns!

Lin wrote an impassioned appeal to Queen Victoria’s conscience (in the form of an open letter published in Canton) regarding  the opium trade, which was later reprinted in The Times of London:

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?

This did nothing but piss-off most British people, who were (shockingly!) racists and convinced of their civilized superiority in the days of the Empire. Why shouldn’t the great and noble Brits sell drugs to the yellow dogs of China? Didn’t every know the Chinese were fiends for the stuff because they were naturally morally inferior and subject to addiction? Who was this dude to call THEM barbarians, simply because they invaded, plundered, and subjugated everyone they could reach?

Anyone who disagreed and argued that the Chinese had the right to refuse opium was called a stupid, know-nothing, liberal idiot … of course. Among these liberal idiots were, naturally, my heroine Mary Crawford and her brother Henry.

Lin’s destruction of the opium gave the British an excuse to start a fight that would become the First Opium War. Being extremely intelligent, Lin quickly foresaw what the British were planning, and girded his loins for war. He warned all the costal provinces about the coming British naval invasion, and told them to get ready. The governors of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, ignored Lin and were therefore caught completely caught off guard by the arrival British warships and opium freighters at their doors. The British navy cake-walked into Dinghai and hunkered down for occupation and opium distribution.

Since no good deed goes unpunished, “Lin became a scapegoat for these losses due to court politics … The Daoguang Emperor endorsed the hardline policies advocated by Lin, but then blamed Lin for the resulting disastrous war … he was exiled to the remote Ili region in Xinjiang. His position was then given to Qishan in September 1840.”

Lin Zexu

Happily, Lin was redeemed by both the Qing Dynasty and by history.

“In 1845, he was appointed governor-general of ShaanxiGansu (Shaan-Gan). In 1847. he became governor-general of YunnanGuizhou (Yun-Gui) … [However, the] posts were less prestigious than his previous position in Canton, thus his career never fully recovered from the failures there … [In modern 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 … he is now one of the symbols of modern China’s resistance to European imperialism.”

I think that is a fitting tribute to a man as upstanding and devoted to his people as he was educated and precipitous.

       

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One thought on “The Beginning of the Opium Wars


  1. It does seem that good deeds are frequently punished. Whoever wanted a revolution to result from our 2016 election, now we need one just to continue living here. Meanwhile, pundits seem to think Democrats are as much to blame as Republicans.

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