Lin Zexu - A National Hero for Chinese People
Lin Zexu (simplified Chinese: 林则徐; August 30, 1785 – November 22, 1850) was a Chinese scholar and official during the Qing dynasty.
He is most recognized for his conduct and his constant position on the "high moral ground" in his fight, as a "shepherd" of his people, against the opium trade in Guangzhou. Although the non-medicinal consumption of opium was banned by Emperor Yongzheng in 1729, by the 1830s China's economy and society were being seriously affected by huge imports of opium from British and other traders based in the city. Lin's forceful opposition to the trade on moral and social grounds is considered to be the primary catalyst for the First Opium War of 1839–42. Because of this firm stance, he has subsequently been considered as a role model for moral governance, particularly by Chinese people.
Early life and career
Lin was born in Fuzhou, in Fujian province. In 1811, he received the Jinshi degree, the highest in the imperial examinations, and the same year, he was appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service and became Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837, where he launched an opium suppression campaign.
Campaign to suppress opium
A formidable bureaucrat known for his competence and high moral standards, Lin was sent to Guangdong as imperial commissioner by the Daoguang Emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium from the British. He arrived in March 1839 and made a huge impact on the opium trade within a matter of months. 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 and Lin resorted to using force in the western merchants' enclave. It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. 500 workers laboured for 22 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the ocean outside of Humen Town. Finally, Lin pressured the Portuguese government of Macau to deport the British, resulting in their settlement of then still barren Hong Kong.
Lin also wrote an extraordinary "memorial", by way of open letter published in Canton, to Queen Victoria of Britain in 1839 urging her to end the opium trade. The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality. As a representative of the Imperial court, Lin adopts a position of superiority and his tone is condescending, despite the British clearly having the upper hand when the event is examined with hindsight. His primary line of argument is that China is providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, while Britain sends only "poison" in return. He accuses the "barbarians" (i.e. private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that Victoria would act "in accordance with decent feeling" and support his efforts. He writes:
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?
The memorial was never delivered to the queen, though it was later published in The Times. Open hostilities between China and Britain started in 1839.
Exile in Xinjiang
Lin made significant preparation for war against the possible British invasion. As a result the British force was defeated numerous times in the battles in the Canton region. The British force was compelled to sail north to attack JiangSu and Zhejiang. The governors of these two provinces failed to heed a warning from Lin, however. As a result, they were unprepared, and the British easily landed and occupied Dinghai.
Because of this defeat, and also because of the corrupt political structure of the Qing Dynasty, Lin was used as a scapegoat for these losses. He was replaced by Qishan in September 1840. As punishment for his failures, Lin was demoted and sent to exile in Ili in Xinjiang. However, the Chinese government still considered Lin to be an official of rare virtue and eventually reinstated him to take care of several difficult situations.
While in Xinjiang, Lin was the first Chinese scholar to take note of several aspects of Muslim culture there. In 1845 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.
Death and legacy
He died in 1850 while on the way to Guangxi, where the government was sending him to help put down the Taiping Rebellion. He was a patriot of ability who attained an international reputation as "Commissioner Lin." He was opposed to the opening of the country but felt the need of a better knowledge of foreigners, which drove him to collect much material for a geography of the world. He later gave this material to Wei Yuan, who published an Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms in 1844.
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 has in essence led the war against the debilitating drug with some initial success, with the arrest of 1,700 opium dealers and destruction of 2.6 million pounds of opium, he had been made the scapegoat for the actions leading to British retaliation, and ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium import and use in China. Nevertheless, Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of superlative conduct and national service, and whose likeness have been immortalized at various locations around the world.
Despite the antagonism between the Chinese and the British at the time, the renowned English sinologist Herbert Giles, who was active in the later period of the century and was the co-creator of Wade-Giles transliteration, praised and admired Lin. He wrote: "He was a fine scholar, a just and merciful official and a true patriot." A wax statue of Lin also appeared in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London.
Although he was not seen as such until well into the twentieth century, Lin Zexu is now seen as a National hero for Chinese people; no less than three films have been made on his role in the Opium Wars; and he is now one of the symbols of modern China's resistance to European imperialism.