• Opium War to Self-Strengthening Movement
    (1840-1894)
  • 1st Sino-Japanese War to 1911 Revolution
    (1894-1911)
  • Birth of the ROC to Nanking Decade
    (1912-1937)
  • War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
    (1931-1945)
  • Civil War and Founding of the PRC
    (1945-1949)
  • Tales of Hong Kong
    (1840-1949)
  • Tales of Macao
    (1840-1949)
Opium War to Self-Strengthening Movement
(1840-1894)
1st Sino-Japanese War to 1911 Revolution
(1894-1911)
Birth of the ROC to Nanking Decade
(1912-1937)
War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)
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mainsite_psd_yapian04_2019-09

Qing dynasty officials had different opinions about a strict ban on opium. Lin Zexu (林則徐) and Huang Juezi (黃爵滋) were among its proponents. Lin Zexu, the most determined official among them, stressed in a letter to Emperor Daoguang (道光帝) that “without due action, China will soon have no soldiers to fight for the country and no money to pay for national defence.” In December 1838, Emperor Daoguang promulgated the “Regulations on Banning Opium” and appointed Lin Zexu as Imperial Commissioner for enforcement in the Guangdong area.

Upon his arrival in March 1839, he worked closely with Governor-General of Liangguang (Guangdong and Guangxi) Deng Tingzhen (鄧廷楨) and Naval Commander-in-Chief Guan Tianpei (關天培) to reinforce coastal defence against opium trafficking. Addressing foreign merchants in a formal announcement, Lin Zexu emphasized the legal consequences of trafficking opium, including confiscation and imprisonment. In June 1839, despite the British objection conveyed by envoy Charles Elliot, about 20,000 boxes of opium (weighing 2.3 million catties) were seized from foreign merchants and destroyed in an event that became known as the  Humen Destruction of Opium (虎門銷煙).

Why was Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu dishonorably discharged in the midst of the First Opium War?

See answer below.

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Lin Zexu, appointed Imperial Commissioner by Emperor Daoguang in 1838, arrived in Guangdong the following spring to spearhead the opium ban campaign. He was regarded as China’s pioneer in its battle against drug abuse.

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Lin Zexu (林則徐) was born in Houguan (modern Fuzhou). As governor of Huguang region, he succeeded in banning opium, and was appointed Imperial Commissioner in 1838. Arriving in Guangzhou in the spring of 1839, he immediately ordered the persecution of opium dealers and commanded foreign merchants to surrender their stocks of opium. In June 1839, he personally oversaw the destruction of all opium seized in Humen – a highlight of the anti-opium campaign marking the first large-scale drug disposal in early modern history. Today, Lin Zexu is considered China’s pioneer in the war on drugs.

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In an open letter to Queen Victoria in 1839, Lin Zexu denounced the opium trade, “There is only self-interest in profits without any regard for human life; this is unjust and should be condemned.”

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In March 1839, Lin Zexu formally proclaimed “Chinese caught selling opium or running a smoking den will be punished,” “opium users will be subject to the death penalty,” and “all remaining opium surrendered.” Foreign merchants were required to hand over their remaining stocks and to guarantee that “no opium is to be shipped to China; offenders are subject to confiscation and punishment.”

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Li Zexu inspecting the coastal defense with binoculars. After taking office, Lin Zexu strengthened coastal defense to seal off smuggling channels used by opium traders and smugglers.

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Despite Li Zexu’s great efforts, there were still drug lords like Lancelot Dent (depicted in picture on the left) who ignored the opium ban, and urged other foreign merchants to withhold their opium from the authorities. Charles Elliot, the then Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China (depicted in picture on the right), also strongly opposed the opium ban. Furious, Lin Zexu declared, “As long as opium remains in circulation, so shall I remain; I vow to see things through and will not back down halfway.”

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As opium traders at that time were mostly British, traders from other countries “looked to the British traders for direction (regarding whether or not to comply with the ban), while the British traders looked to Elliot (the Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China) for direction,” Lin Zexu noted in a report to Emperor Daoguang about the progress of the opium ban.

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During the ban, the Thirteen Hongs (十三行) in Guangdong became the scene of Lin Zexu’s showdown with Elliot and the opium traders. As Lin Zexu’s severe crackdowns continued, Elliot and the opium traders of the Thirteen Hongs gradually began to buckle.

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In order to force opium traders (mostly British merchants) to comply, Lin Zexu shut down trade in Guangzhou, blockaded the trading houses, removed the Thirteen Hongs’ Chinese employees and cut off the Hongs’ communication and supplies, in effect placing some 350 foreign merchants within the trading zone under house arrest. Despite resisting the ban initially, Charles Elliot eventually gave in and advised the British merchants to deliver their stocks to him and let him surrender 20,283 boxes of opium to the Qing authorities on behalf of the British government. Later, this would allow the British to claim that a “trade dispute” had escalated into a violation of British national interests – thus justifying a future British invasion. 

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Charles Elliot, a proponent of the use of force against China, wrote to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, in April 1839 to request a British invasion of Zhoushan (舟山) and a blockade of Guangzhou and Ningbo (寧波) in order to compel China to make reparations and dismiss Lin Zexu. At the time, Lin Zexu had stepped up his opium fighting efforts.

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The handover of opium from users and merchants was completed on May 12 and May 18 of 1839 respectively. On May 23, British opium traders, including Lancelot Dent, were deported. The next day, Elliot ordered the evacuation of British subjects from the Thirteen Hongs to Macau. Between June 3 and 25, 1839, Lin Zexu confiscated and personally oversaw the public destruction of around 20,000 boxes (weighing 2.3 million catties) of surrendered opium in Humen, Guangdong. The historic moment of opium destruction at Humen depicted in The Opium War (鴉片戰爭), a 1996 film directed by Xie Jin (謝晉).

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The process of opium destruction involved “cracking open the boxes, weighing, mincing, soaking with salt in a stone pool, decomposing with lime, and putting the sludge out to sea during low tide.” Instead of simply incinerating the opium, Lin Zexu used this complex process as opium ashes from incineration could seep into the ground, where up to 20 to 30 percent could still be dug up and recovered by addicts. Dissolving opium in seawater then flushing it out to sea, on the other hand, would destroy the drug completely. These thorough measures demonstrated Lin Zexu’s determination to enforce the ban and his meticulous approach.

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After the disposal of opium in Humen, Lin Zexu in a report to Emperor Daoguang provided details of the amount of opium surrendered and destroyed, retaining a sample of eight boxes. Emperor Daoguang was exhilarated by this news, failing to recognize that China had become embroiled in a very volatile situation. The war that was about to change the country forever was now imminent.

Why was Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu dishonorably discharged in the midst of the First Opium War?

Lin Zexu insisted on banning opium while serving in Huguang and Guangdong, and was recognized for strengthening defence along the southern coastline and seizing illicit opium in Humen, for which he became an enemy of Britain. In August 1840, British naval forces arrived in Tianjin, demanding a retraction of the current policy on opium ban and retribution against Lin Zexu. Stunned by their presence, Emperor Daoguang and his officials gave in and put the blame on Lin Zexu. Calling the opium ban counter-productive, Emperor Daoguang agreed to dismiss Lin. After years of exile in the remote areas of Xinjiang, Lin returned to service, gravely distressed and died a few years later. His life is summed up in his own words, “Sacrifice for one’s country is the right thing to do regardless of personal misfortune or death.”

Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe (pictures 1, 4, 5), Visual China Group (pictures 7, 9), misc. photo sources.

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