Lin Zexu

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Lin Zexu

Lin Zexu (Lin Tse-hsü, 林則徐, Lín Zéxú) (August 30, 1785 – November 22, 1850) also known as Lin Tse-hsu, was a Chinese scholar and official during the Qing dynasty, whose efforts to end opium smuggling into Guangzhou (廣州) are considered to be the primary catalyst for the First Opium War of 1839–42. In 1838, Lin forced foreign merchants to surrender their stocks of opium, making them guarantee that they would cease importing it to China, and dumped it into the ocean. In 1839, the British retaliated by sending troops to ravage large areas of South China. Lin grossly overestimated the military capacity of his own forces and underestimated that of the British warships. China was defeated and forced to make many concessions to the British and then to other foreign powers, including the eventual legalization of the opium trade.

Lin was a member of a small, influential group of reformists, the "Statecraft school," who sought to revitalize traditional Chinese thought and institutions in order to revive the faltering Qin dynasty. They also advocated the compilation of practical knowledge, including information about the West and Western technology, in order to deal effectively with modernization. Their reforms were later adopted by the “Self-Strengthening Movement.”

Early life and career

Lin Tse-hsu was born August 30, 1785, in Fuzhou (福州), in Fujian (福建) province. His father was a teacher and, though poor, he gave his sons a thorough education in the Confucian classics, so that they could succeed in the civil service examinations and obtain positions in the government bureaucracy. Lin passed the initial examinations in 1804, and was made an aide to the governor of his native province, a position which gave him practical experience in politics. In 1811, he received the Jinshi degree, one of the highest titles in the imperial examinations (科舉; kējǔ), and the same year, he was appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy (翰林院, Hànlín Yuàn, literally "brush wood court"), which advised the emperor and helped him to draft documents. Lin received his first regular administrative assignment in 1820, in the salt monopoly. He then supervised water-control systems in several localities, served as tax collector, then for a term as a local judge, during which he earned the respectful nickname “Lin the Clear Sky.”

Campaign to suppress opium

After a period of literary activity during the traditional mourning and retirement at the death of his father, Lin returned to serve in the highest echelons of the government. He became Governor-General (總督) of Hunan (湖南) and Hubei (湖北) in 1837.

The opening of the tea trade to the Dutch and British merchants brought large quantities of illegal opium to China. By the early nineteenth century, opium was the principal product traded in China by the British East India Company, and opium addiction had become a serious social problem. When the son of Emperor Tao-kuang (Daoguang Emperor, 道光帝) died of an opium overdose, the Emperor decided to put an end to the trade, not only for moral reasons, but because the opium had to be paid for with precious Chinese silver. Lin submitted a memorial to the Emperor condemning a suggestion that the trade be legalized, and citing the measures by which he had suppressed the drug traffic in the provinces where he was Governor General. The Emperor responded by appointing Lin Imperial Commissioner in late 1838, and vesting him with extraordinary powers.

A formidable bureaucrat known for his thoroughness and integrity, Lin was sent to Guangdong (Canton, Kuangchou, Guangzhou, 廣東) to halt the importation of opium from the British. He confiscated more than 20,000 chests of opium already at the port and supervised their destruction, and later blockaded the port from European ships. His personal diary from this period vividly portrays his difficult journey from Peking to Guangdong; his perspiring in the sub-tropical heat of Guangdong as he kowtows before the Emperor’s written instructions; his meetings with British officials and merchants; his efforts to make corrupt Chinese officials enforce the laws; and his apology to the god of the sea for defiling the ocean with confiscated opium.

Lin also wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of Britain warning her that China was adopting a stricter policy towards everyone, Chinese or foreign, who brought opium into China. This letter expressed a desire that Victoria would act "in accordance with decent feeling" and support his efforts. The letter was never delivered to the queen, though it was published in The Times.[1]

Lin forced foreign merchants to surrender their stocks of opium, and made them guarantee that they would cease importing it to China. In 1839, the British retaliated by sending troops to ravage large areas of South China. Lin grossly overestimated the military capacity of his own forces and underestimated that of the British warships. The subsequent military debacle led to his replacement by Qishan( 琦善) in September 1840. Though the Emperor had approved of Lin’s policies, he was demoted and sent to exile in Ili in Xinjiang (新疆) as punishment for his failures. However, the Chinese government still considered Lin to be an official of rare virtue and sent him to deal with difficult situations. He was rewarded with the title of Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent for pacifying rebel Muslims in the province of Yunnan. Lin Tse-hsu died in 1850, while on the way to Guangxi (廣西), where the government was sending him to help put down the Taiping Rebellion.


Lin was a member of a small, influential group of reformists, the Statecraft school, who sought to revitalize traditional Chinese thought and institutions in order to revive the faltering Qin dynasty. Their motto was “find in antiquity the sanction for present-day reform.” They also advocated the compilation of practical knowledge for use in government, including information about the West and Western technology, in order to deal effectively with modernization.

Although Lin was opposed to the opening of China to foreign influences, he felt the need to better understand foreigners and collected a great deal of material for a geography of the world. He later gave this material to Wei Yuan, who published an Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms (Hǎiguó túzhì, 海國圖志) in 1844. Though Lin was one of the best-informed and most experienced statesmen of his day, he did not foresee that his opposition to the opium trade would expose China to humiliation and foreign encroachment that would ultimately hasten its downfall. Lin was following the precedents of Chinese officials who, for centuries, had maintained China’s position of power by playing their Central Asian neighbors against one another. He could not comprehend the British concept of a commercial empire, and did not understand that the British were looking for any pretext to impose military force on China and reinforce their demands for free trade and extraterritoriality. Lin took an aggressive moral stance and proceeded against the British merchants with an authoritarian attitude which only insulted and provoked them. His reaction to the humiliation of China after the First Opium War was that China needed to learn more about the European barbarians and to import their technology. His reform program was later adopted by the “Self-Strengthening Movement,” which attempted to revive the Qin dynasty as it was being overwhelmed by social and political problems.

June 3, the day when Lin confiscated the crates of opium, is celebrated as Anti-Smoking Day in the Republic of China in Taiwan. Manhattan's Chatham Square, in Chinatown, contains a statue of Lin, commemorating his early struggle against drug use.

Although he was not recognized until well into the twentieth century, Lin Zexu is now regarded as a national hero for Chinese people, a symbol of China's resistance to imperialism. At least three films have been made about his role in the Opium Wars, and his policies are now viewed as brave rather than pugnacious, and defensive rather than provocative.

Letter to Queen Victoria

Lin Tse-Hsu's "Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria" was a remarkably frank document, especially considering the highly stylized language usually employed in Chinese diplomacy. It is not certain that Queen Victoria ever read the letter. Below are some excerpts from this letter:

A communication: Magnificently our great Emperor soothes and pacifies China and the foreign countries, regarding all with the same kindness. If there is profit, then he shares it with the peoples of the world; if there is harm, then he removes it on behalf of the world. This is because he takes the mind of heaven and earth as his mind.

But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Kwangtung, and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.

All those people in China who sell opium or smoke opium should receive the death penalty. We trace the crime of those barbarians who through the years have been selling opium, then the deep harm they have wrought and the great profit they have usurped should fundamentally justify their execution according to law. We take into to consideration, however, the fact that the various barbarians have still known how to repent their crimes and return to their allegiance to us by taking the 20,183 chests of opium from their storeships and petitioning us, through their consular officer [superintendent of trade], Elliot, to receive it. It has been entirely destroyed and this has been faithfully reported to the Throne in several memorials by this commissioner and his colleagues.

We find your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [three li make one mile, ordinarily] 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? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries—how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them. If China cuts off these benefits with no sympathy for those who are to suffer, then what can the barbarians rely upon to keep themselves alive? Moreover the woolens, camlets, and longells [i.e., textiles] of foreign countries cannot be woven unless they obtain Chinese silk. If China, again, cuts off this beneficial export, what profit can the barbarians expect to make? As for other foodstuffs, beginning with candy, ginger, cinnamon, and so forth, and articles for use, beginning with silk, satin, chinaware, and so on, all the things that must be had by foreign countries are innumerable. On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used as toys. We can take them or get along without them. Since they are not needed by China, what difficulty would there be if we closed our frontier and stopped the trade? Nevertheless, our Celestial Court lets tea, silk, and other goods be shipped without limit and circulated everywhere without begrudging it in the slightest. This is for no other reason but to share the benefit with the people of the whole world. The goods from China carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use, but also can be divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?

Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want.

We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in Scotland, Ireland, and other places, originally no opium has been produced. Only in several places of India under your control such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Benares, and Malwa has opium been planted from hill to hill, and ponds have been opened for its manufacture. For months and years work is continued in order to accumulate the poison. The obnoxious odor ascends, irritating heaven and frightening the spirits. Indeed you, O King, can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in its stead the five grains [millet, barley, wheat, etc.]. Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This will really be a great, benevolent government policy that will increase the common weal and get rid of evil. For this, Heaven must support you and the spirits must bring you good fortune, prolonging your old age and extending your descendants. All will depend on this act.

Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. Now consider this: if the barbarians do not bring opium, then how can the Chinese people resell it, and how can they smoke it? The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? He who takes the life of even one person still has to atone for it with his own life; yet is the harm done by opium limited to the taking of one life only? Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid a harmful thing on behalf of mankind.

May you, O King, check your wicked and sift out your wicked people before they come to China, in order to guarantee the peace of your nation, to show further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness, and to let the two countries enjoy together the blessings of peace How fortunate, how fortunate indeed! After receiving this dispatch will you immediately give us a prompt reply regarding the details and circumstances of your cutting off the opium traffic. be sure not to put this off. The above is what has to be communicated.[2]


  1. W. Travis Hines, et al., The Opium Wars. ISBN 0-7607-7638-5
  2. Ssuyu Teng and John Fairbank, China's Response to the West (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beeching, Jack. 1975. The Chinese Opium Wars. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0151176507
  • Chang, Hsin-pao. 1964. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Hanes, William Travis and Frank Sanello. 2002. Opium Wars: The Addiction of one Empire and the Corruption of Another. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks. ISBN 1570719314
  • Hummel, Arthur William. 1991. Eminent Chinese of the Chʻing Period (1644-1912). Taipei: SMC. ISBN 9576380650
  • Waley, Arthur. 1958. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. London: Allen & Unwin.
  • This article incorporates text from an edition of the New International Encyclopedia that is in the public domain.


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