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China has always been self sufficient. She traded with the West but didn’t need anything produced by the west. In the middle of the 19th century, (and perhaps even to this day), this was the dilemma of Europe and America. They could offer China nothing and yet, they needed Chinese silk, tea, porcelain ,-to name a few.

The intricacies of doing business with the Chinese gave foreign countries a big headache.

For one, the Chinese believed  that trading is a “political act” and therefore, any trader must strictly follow its customs and traditions, even the kowtowing ceremony.

This, of course, was detested by the British who believed that they were far superior than the Chinese and they, too, have their own Monarch. Nothing could persuade the Emperor to change this policy-that those ambassadors who come to China must also kowtow before the emperor.

To the Chinese, any foreigner is a barbarian. They can boast that they have one of the oldest civilizations in the world. They also have invented so many things, among them paper, printing and gunpowder. They have their own culture, using the chopsticks as their utensils when America was still an uncharted jungle and Europeans were using their fingers while eating.

By 1830, the British introduced a commodity that reversed the balance of trading relations with China- Opium. Thousands upon thousands of Chinese became addicted to this menace and all the other products that they were selling could not compensate. The outflow of cash shifted in favor of the British.

 

This did not sit well with the emperor….and this did not sit well with Lin Zexu either. The eminent Sinologist Lucian W.Pye called him, “the incorruptible Mandarin”.But who was Lin Zexu?

 

Lin Zexu was born in Fuzhou, province of Fujian. On 30 August, 1785. At the age of 26, he received the Jinshi degree, the highest in the imperial examinations. Through sheer hard work, perseverance and passing all the necessary examinations, he rose from the ranks to become Governor –General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837.

 

Commissioner Lin,as he was respectfully referred to, was a formidable bureaucrat.. He was a determined and honest official who was working to ablish the opium trade. Lin confiscated all the opium and set them on fire. This led to the Opium War and eventually to the “unequal treaties” ,with China getting the worst end of the negotiations.

China lost the war because her armies were no match against those of the British. Lin has overestimated the strength of the Chinese army.

 

Commissioner Lin had the audacity to write a letter to Queen Victoria asking her to put a stop to British trading of opium to China.

The letter never reached the Queen but was published in a local newspaper in England.

 

Here is a copy of Lin’s letter to the British Queen:

 

 

"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. If 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 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.

"Fortunately we have received a specially extended favor from is Majesty the Emperor, who considers that for those who voluntarily surrender there are still some circumstances to palliate their crime, and so for the time being he has magnanimously excused them from punishment. But as for those who again violate the opium prohibition, it is difficult for the law to pardon them repeatedly. Having established new regulations, we presume that the ruler of your honorable country, who takes delight in our culture and whose disposition is inclined towards us, must be able to instruct the various barbarians to observe the law with care. It is only necessary to explain to them the advantages and disadvantages and then they will know that the legal code of the Celestial Court must be absolutely obeyed with awe.

"We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [three li equal one mile] 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!"

Lin died on 22 November,1850 while on the way to Guangdong province to help stop the Taiping Rebellion. He didn’t like to open China to the world but agreed that it must have a better understanding of foreigners.

It was only well into the middle of the 20th century that Lin Zexu was considered a National Hero of the Chinese People He is now a symbol of Chinese resistance to European imperialism.

 Sources:

Pye ,Lucian W.CHINA, An Introduction (Third Edition).Little ,Brown and Co.Boston, USA.1984.

Wikipedia

http://www.international.ucla.edu/eas/documents/linzexu.htm (for Lin Zexu's Letter to Queen Victoria)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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