Poison

Published 1843,

Published 1843, “from a drawing by a native artist.” Credit: Public Domain.

Lin Zexu was a Chinese government official in the late Qing Dynasty who destroyed opium being sold by English merchants:

Lin Zexu (1785-1850) was the Chinese Commissioner in Canton [Guangdong] whose actions precipitated the Opium Wars (1839- 1842). Although opium was used in China for centuries, it was not until the opening of the tea trade to Dutch and British merchants that China was able to import large quantities of the drug. By the early nineteenth century opium was the principal product that the English East India Company traded in China and opium addiction was becoming a widespread social problem. When the emperor’s own son died of an overdose, he decided to put an end to the trade. Lin Zexu was sent to Canton, the chief trading port of the East India Company, with instructions to negotiate an end to the importation of opium into China. The English merchants were uncooperative, so he seized their stores of opium. This led to immediate military action. The Chinese were decisively defeated and had to cede to a humiliating treaty that legalized the opium trade. As a result commissioner Lin was dismissed from office and sent into exile. Lin Zexu’s “Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria” was written before the outbreak of the Opium Wars. It was a remarkably frank document, especially given the usual highly stylized language of Chinese diplomacy. There remains some question whether Queen Victoria ever read the letter.

Destruction of opium. Credit: Public Domain.

The “Guangdong Opium Party.” Credit: Public Domain.

Here are some excerpts from the letter, written in 1839:

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? […] 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?

Statue in Singapore. Credit: Sengkang.

Statue in Singapore. Credit: Sengkang.

Malcolm X on the Opium Wars:

When the white man professes ignorance about why the Chinese hate him so, my mind can’t help flashing back to what I read, there in prison, about how the blood forebears of this same white man raped China at a time when China was trusting and helpless. Those original white “Christian traders” sent into china millions of pounds of opium. By 1839, so many of the Chinese were addicts that China’s desperate government destroyed twenty thousand chests of opium. The first Opium War was promptly declared by the white man. Imagine! Declaring war upon someone who objects to being narcotized! The Chinese were severely beaten with Chinese invented gunpowder. The Treaty of Nanking made China pay the British white man for the destroyed opium; forced open China’s major ports to British trade; forced China to abandon Hong Kong; fixed China’s import tariffs so low that cheap British articles soon flooded in, maiming China’s industrial development. After a second Opium War, the Tientsin Treaties legalized the ravaging opium trade, legalized a British- French-American control of China’s customs. China tried delaying that Treaty’s ratification; Peking [Beijing] was looted and burned.

Lin Zexu statue, Chatham Square, East Broadway, New York City. Credit: LuHungnguong.

Lin Zexu statue, Chatham Square, East Broadway, New York City. Credit: LuHungnguong.

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7 responses to “Poison

  • aediculaantinoi

    Not only is reading the truth of this situation sad, it’s also superlatively sad that so many Americans (if they know anything of this at all, and very few do, alas) have often assumed it was the Chinese who were exporting opium to other people in some sort of fiendish plot and as a result of some decadent lifestyle, when it was all for profit for the British (and for tea, but anyway…).

    May Lin Zexu’s words not be forgotten, and may he be honored amongst his ancestors and by his descendants.

    • uloboridae

      I concur with above. I took AP U.S. history in high school and ethnobotany as an undergrad elective; both mentioned opium and the connection to the Chinese but glossed over it and how Europeans destroyed so much. It was a very generic “the Chinese were weak” type of deal. And those two classes aren’t exactly accessible or common to most people in the U.S either.

      • Heathen Chinese

        Thank you both for commenting.

        Lin Zexu’s letter actually posits the scenario, “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.” Turned out to be a bit prophetic, in the sense of “chickens coming home to roost.”

        The part that really stood out to me about all this was that “By the early nineteenth century opium was the principal product that the English East India Company traded in China.”

        Indeed, Frederic Wakeman Jr. actually wrote in his essay “The Canton Trade and the Opium War,” which was published in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 10, part 1, that opium was “the world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.”

        One would think that the history of a commodity with such a large impact on global economics would be more widely known. It definitely is in China, but not so much in the West…

      • uloboridae

        Well of course not, it would make us white americans look bad. That’s why we paint ourselves as liberating heros to Jews in WW2 instead of revealing the fact that we deliberately turned many away just beforehand despite having space on the immigration quotas.

      • Heathen Chinese

        Not to mention IBM (which made punch-card “computers” for Germany’s 1933 census), Ford, and all the other American companies that made quite a bit of profit doing business with the Deutsches Reich, even during the years that the United States and Germany were officially at war.

  • alephlordofchaos

    It is a shame that I cannot like this post on your site, because I feel it is an interesting read. I really find myself sympathizing with Lin Zexu. I must wonder if he was treated as a kind of folk hero.

    • Heathen Chinese

      The like button is the new “opiate of the masses,” that’s why it’s disabled (though I often “like” other people’s posts, which is a bit of a hypocrisy, to be sure). 😉

      Lin Zexu has definitely been used by various governments as an “anti-drug” symbol, but I think it’s likely that he is also seen as a bit of a folk hero for being an underdog fighting the British Empire.

      This site says that “His house is now a temple [or memorial hall, at least] to him” and contains several photographs, including one of an altar in front of his statue.

      This other site says that “the Republic of China in Taiwan celebrates Anti-Smoking Day on June 3, which is the same day when Lin Zexu confiscated the crates of opium from the harbor.”

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