Before the Opium Wars: Lin Zexu and his Campaign against Opium

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

As China’s fiscal situation worsened in the first few decades of the 19th century, foreign commercial pressures continued to mount. Eventually, the strict campaign against the opium trade by Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu brought matters to a head.

The painting showing Canton's port in 1802.
The port of Canton became the center of the illegal opium trade in early 18th-century China. (Image: William Daniell/Public domain)

The Money in Opium

Rebuffed in their efforts to negotiate a trade agreement with China, the British increasingly flouted Chinese law by smuggling larger and larger quantities of opium into the Middle Kingdom. By 1820, opium had surpassed all other items of trade as China’s chief import.

As the opium flowed in, the silver flowed out. By the mid-1820s, China’s overall trade balance, which had been heavily favorable throughout the 18th century, began to turn sharply negative. Between 1831 and 1833, nearly 10 million taels of silver flowed out of China (worth almost $14 million at the prevailing exchange rate).

In 1838, an official Manchu estimate placed the number of opium addicts in China somewhere between 2 and 10 million, a figure that reportedly included up to one-fourth of the country’s civil servants. A one-day supply of opium in the 1830s would cost roughly half the daily wage of a Chinese laborer; and by the mid-1830s, British merchants were netting roughly $18 million a year from the opium trade. It is worth noting that these are 1830s prices. Small wonder the British parliament showed little enthusiasm for curtailing the opium traffic.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The New Commissioner in Canton

But for the Manchu dynasty, it was a different story altogether. Alarmed by the growing prevalence of opium addiction and by the hemorrhaging of silver from the imperial treasury, the Manchu court redoubled its efforts to stamp out the drug trade.

In 1836, the emperor ordered the provincial governor-general in Canton in south China to crack down hard on the sale and use of opium. Over the next two years, the governor imprisoned more than 2,000 Chinese opium dealers, smugglers, and users; in addition, there were daily reports of addicts being publicly executed.

In 1839, the Manchu emperor appointed a new commissioner to oversee the suppression of the Canton drug trade. His name was Lin Zexu. Lin Zexu pursued a policy to deal aggressively with all domestic participants in the opium cycle, while at the same time treating the foreign suppliers of the poisonous drug with a certain amount of leniency and circumspection. Aware of Britain’s growing global power and prestige, Lin Zexu hoped to avoid an open conflict, if possible.

Learn more about Manchu hubris.

Lin Zexu Writes to Queen Victoria

Writing to Queen Victoria in 1839, Lin cited Christianity’s own golden rule in an effort to shame the British sovereign into stemming the cultivation, manufacture, and sale of opium:

I have heard that the smoking of opium is … strictly forbidden by your country. … Why do you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries? 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. … Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want.

There is no record of the British sovereign responding to Commissioner Lin’s letter.

Lin Zexu’s Strategy Against the British

A painting of LIn Zexu.
Commissioner Lin Zexu was forced to take strict action against the British opium traders. (Image: Native artist in the possession of Lady Strange/Public domain)

In pursuit of his goal of ridding Canton of all opium, Lin Zexu in 1839 ordered all foreigners in the city to surrender their stores of opium within three days; and in addition, he ordered them to sign a pledge that they would never again traffic in the drug.

Violation of this pledge was to be punishable by death. In a gesture intended to sweeten his ultimatum, Commissioner Lin offered a token reward of five and a half pounds of Chinese tea for every opium chest turned over by the foreign merchants.

When the foreigners ignored the commissioner’s deadline, Lin threatened to execute two opium merchants. In response, the British reluctantly surrendered more than 1,000 chests (about 75 tons) of opium—which was only around two percent or so of all the opium that was currently stockpiled in Canton’s warehouses.

Destruction of British Opium

Dissatisfied with the British response, Lin Zexu ratcheted up the pressure. He blockaded a key British trading firm, confining its 350 foreign occupants to the factory compound.

The siege lasted for six weeks, ending only when British merchants agreed to turn over 20,000 additional chests of opium, weighing approximately 1,300 tons—more than two and a half million pounds.

In a classic display of imperial potency, Commissioner Lin’s ceremonial destruction of the British opium was carried out in the presence of several high Chinese court officials and foreign dignitaries.

The opium was first dumped into three massive open trenches, each lined with large quantities of salt and lime, where it was then covered with two feet of water. The mixture was then stirred thoroughly, and the resulting slurry was flushed into a nearby creek, where the currents eventually washed it out to sea. Repeating the process several times, it took 500 workers 22 days to complete the destruction of the British opium.

Learn more about China’s early golden age.

The British Reaction to Lin Zexu’s Policies

While Commissioner Lin Zexu was celebrating his triumph over the opium lords, British merchants were planning countermeasures of their own.

They sent a petition to Queen Victoria’s prime minister, Lord Palmerston, urging the British government to demand full compensation for the seized opium. In London and Manchester, a groundswell of patriotic opinion arose, demanding firm governmental action to uphold the trading rights of British merchants abroad—and to sternly repay the deep Chinese insult to British pride.

Amid this rising tide of jingoistic self-righteousness, few British thought to question the propriety—or to note the stunning hypocrisy—of demanding the right to trade freely on foreign markets a substance whose cultivation, sale, and use were punishable by death at home.

Common Questions about Lin Zexu’s Campaign against Opium

Q: Why was the British government not in favor stopping the illegal opium trade in China in the early 1800s?

By the mid-1830s, British merchants were netting roughly $18 million a year from the opium trade. Because of this, the British parliament showed little enthusiasm for curtailing the opium traffic.

Q: Who was Lin Zexu?

Lin Zexu was appointed in 1839 by the Manchu emperor as the new commissioner to oversee the suppression of the Canton drug trade by the British.

Q: What was Lin Zexu’s policy of dealing with the opium trade?

Lin Zexu pursued a policy to deal aggressively with all domestic participants in the opium cycle, while at the same time treating the foreign suppliers of the poisonous drug with a certain amount of leniency and circumspection.

Q: How did Lin Zexu have the confiscated British opium destroyed?

The confiscated British opium was first dumped into three massive open trenches, each lined with large quantities of salt and lime, where it was then covered with two feet of water. The mixture was then stirred thoroughly, and then flushed into a nearby creek, where the currents eventually washed it out to sea.

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