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Lin Zexu's Letters to Queen Victoria and Emperor Daoguang

Posted December 30th, 2016 at 06:16 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated December 31st, 2016 at 12:50 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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Commissioner Lin Zexu

The Chinese Repository is a collection of letters published in 1840 about the issue of opium trade in China, particularly that of foreign smuggling by the British. The first letter I chose to focus on is an open letter written to Queen Victoria by Commissioner Lin Zexu in which he requests the end of illegal opium trafficking. The second is a letter written by Lin Zexu and his aid Eleang to the Daoguang Emperor regarding the trade rights of the Portuguese in Macao. Both of these letters give firsthand accounts from the perspective of the Qing government. In this case it is that of the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu who was tasked with eliminating the foreign opium trade, as the acts and words of Lin Zexu were akin to the will of the Emperor himself. Moreover the two letters are valuable as they provide the perspective of the government and the official directly appointed by the emperor to deal with that issue.

The first letter is by the High Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu addressed to Queen Victoria of Britain. The letter requests of the British monarch to punish the trade of opium among British merchants in China and to enforce the laws of China among her subjects. Because this is a correspondence between two governments the style of the letter is formal. Lin however tries to stress the superiority of China and the importance of Chinese exports to Britain. He stresses the prestige of the Emperor by saying "It is only our high and mighty emperor, who alike supports and cherishes those of the Inner Land and those from beyond the seas - who looks upon all mankind with equal benevolence - who if a source of profit exists anywhere, diffuses it over the whole world". The passage shows the Chinese opinion of its empire and government institutions; quite literally Lin is saying that the Emperor enjoys sovereignty over all nations of the world. He continues with this line of thought by contrasting the subservient relationship that England has always maintained with China. Lin directly refers to the Queen by saying "You, the queen of your honorable nation sit upon a throne occupied through successive generations by predecessors, all of whom have been styled respectful and obedient. Looking over the public documents accompanying the tribute sent (by your predecessors) on various occasions, we find the following 'All of the people of my country (England), arriving at the Central Land for purposes of trade, have to feel grateful to the great emperor for the most perfect justice, for the kindest treatment'". This passage emphasizes the one sided view by which the Chinese refer to Britain in their mutual dealings. The British monarchs are not only "respectful and obedient", according to Lin, but they have also given tribute to China. Lin Zexu seems to imply that Britain always acknowledged the superiority of "the Central Land" (another term used to refer to China).
The only threat made by Lin on behalf of the Chinese government is that they will arrest or deport all foreigners in China and close the ports to British ships, thus depriving the British of their main source of tea and silk and other such commodities. It would be a poor assumption to think that China would be willing to react using military force against Britain itself. The main point that Lin is trying to get across is that opium is a destructive narcotic which the British should help to stop, which is also contraband in Britain, as a condition for the British to continue profiting from Chinese trade. The fact that he expressed this is telling because it also reveals much about Commissioner Lin's beliefs and background.

Lin Zexu received his national degree after passing the Imperial Examination in 1811. The Imperial Examinations focused on teaching Confucian practices; an ideology of loyalty to the emperor and a high moral standing. He was promoted to various posts in provincial administrations and gained a reputation for his morality and his skill as a government official. The morality which he was claimed to have in his society might be seen in his insistence that the "foreign merchants... introducing opium by stealth, have seduced our Chinese people, and caused every province of the land to overflow with that poison. These then know merely to advantage themselves; they care not about injuring others!". On the subject of commerce Lin was against opening Chinese ports to foreigners. However Lin also took an interest in understanding foreign nations and the customs of foreigners; this led him to publish a world atlas which was distributed throughout Asia in the 1840's, he was one of the experts on foreigners within the Chinese government. Due to his knowledge he was appointed Commissioner of Guangdong to suppress the incoming opium there in 1838. His understanding of Britain was demonstrated by his stating "we have heard that in London... Scotland, Ireland and other such places, no opium whatever is produced. It is only in sundry parts of your colonial kingdom of Hindostan, such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Malwa, Benares, Malacca and other places where the very hills are covered with the Opium plant". In the first letter one can find information about Lin Zexu's background; his expressed regard for his own nation and the formal writings of a Chinese official.

Both letters share an influence of the historical context and the well reasoned arguments backed by information which affect the content of these letters. The information that Commissioner Lin provides demonstrates the historical context that the letter is based on. The tributes that Lin Zexu mentions were diplomatic missions aimed at giving trade rights to the British inside of China. The first of these was the Macartney Embassy from 1792 to 1794 in the reign of King George III, the grandfather of Queen Victoria. The ruler of China was the Qianlong Emperor, one of the most celebrated rulers of the Qing dynasty and the grandfather of Emperor Daoguang. Qianlong's government had fought multiple wars throughout the 1700's against insurrections within the empire and expansionist military campaigns in the west and south. It is very likely that the confidence of Daoguang and his subjects comes from the successes of his predecessors.

The second letter differs somewhat from the first; the main focus is to convince Emperor Daoguang to appoint a commissioner in the Portuguese trade enclave of Macao. As such it does not make as many appeals to morality nor does it have to stress the power of the Qing Empire. It is doubtful that a proud nation or court and the Emperor himself would appreciate a realistic appraisal of the situation, nor that Eleang realized there was one. Despite this Eleang is not required to determine Chinese strengths but rather to point out which administrative acts are required to resolve smuggling in the south. It is actually a direct correspondence between the ruler of China and his own appointed officials, hence Eleang and Lin Zexu are not forced to bypass the bureaucrats of the Imperial court as the Emperor was convinced this endeavor merited his personal attention. This letter was written by lieutenant-governor Eleang on behalf of Lin Zexu and in support of his efforts. While the letter is still formal in a manner appropriate to the Emperor it flows much faster with direct instructions of how to implement a secure coastal border to block the opium dealers. The letter makes it clear that all merchant vessels proceed through Whampoa in order to trade at Canton and hence the merchants usually find lodging on Macao. As a result the merchants from nations that the Chinese government does not accept can just as easily sell their goods in Macao. If the Chinese want to coerce the British into enforcing the ban on opium it cannot be done unless the Portuguese close Macao off to other foreigners. Moreover Eleang believed that increasing state control over the Portuguese trade zone would allow them to control the influx of merchants and gather information regarding the the trade practices of the foreigners.

The letter provides a glimpse of traditional Chinese administration, but especially that of the Qing dynasty. One can view methods that an official such as Lin Zexu or Eleang uses to operate. By closing off the port of Macao. Commissioner Lin Zexu and Eleang reinforce the policy of closing the port of Canton to British trade. Hence the main entry point of the opium into China that comes in from the south. This would not only help to put pressure on British trade but it would also help to prevent smuggled British goods from flowing in through Macao, it would also help stop any possible Portuguese smuggling. Through the request to Queen Victoria they are trying to strike opium directly at the source of the problem. Essentially the British ought to regulate their own trade to ensure that it conforms to Chinese law. Besides this proposal clearly implies that the issue lies also with Chinese smugglers and tells the Emperor to "apprehend any traitorous Chinese who may furnish them with supplies". Whereas the first letter proves useful in understanding the Chinese perceptions this letter's importance lies in its displaying the Chinese bureaucratic system. A trusted official can petition the Emperor freely with suggestions if he gives the Emperor the final say.

Since the audiences in both letters are royalty and the rulers of nations Lin and Eleang's language used must be formal and respectful. In multiple instances he calls Queen Victoria "the queen of your honorable nation" and her predecessors "the kings of your honorable nation". Likewise with the Emperor they write formally and give their ruler the appropriate titles and references "his highness" or "his majesty" all throughout their correspondence. Both letters were written in 1839 just after Lin had become Commissioner of Guangdong. The receptions of both letters greatly differ; the second letter was accepted by the Emperor and a commissioner was sent to Macao in order to coerce the Portuguese merchants and authorities in that Portuguese enclave, to enforce the ban on British trade. By 1840 he was considered to have been so successful in stopping opium merchants that he was made Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces; Lin had control over several offices in those two provinces. The first letter never reached Queen Victoria in time as riots caused by British merchants led to Chinese military reprisals. The British parliament voted for war against China in defense of its merchants and for the destruction of British property, their confiscated opium.

Even after the First Opium War the British did not completely enforce the ban on opium and other countries such as France and the United States, as well as Chinese merchants, sought to trade the illegal drug in china itself. Lin makes effective points by giving exact figures "these said foreigners did yet repent of their crime... the took 20,283 chests of opium piled up in their store ships". His logical appeal is also present in this statement "in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity - this is a string proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country". Another point based on fact is the reference he makes in the second letter "in the 8th year of Yongzheng (1730), an assistant was appointed to the magistrate of the district Heangshang... in the 8th year of Qianlong (1743), there was further appointed for Macao a joint prefect... these measures were abundantly sufficient". The Portuguese were given a base in Macao with which to trade with China before the arrival of other European merchants in the 1600's; that is to say when the inflow of trade could still be controlled. Both letters by Lin Zexu and Eleang have arguments backed by information that are grounded in the historical precedence.

These letters, which were preserved in the west within the Chinese Repository, demonstrate the opinions of two Chinese officials regarding the trade of opium but also the nature of British and Chinese relations. The letter provide an understanding of what the narcotics issue was and how the Chinese officials were tasked to resolve the problems. Neither the letter of Lin Zexu nor the one written by Eleang provide any information on the war itself nor the events following the was. Instead they show the interactions between the British Empire and the Qing Empire and the events that led to the clash of the Opium Wars. The key importance of the documents lies in the perspectives given by the Chinese officials Lin Zexu and Eleang, and their experience in combating illegal foreign narcotics.

To keep it brief the actions of Lin Zexu led directly to British declaration of war. A brief and relatively easy war which the British won and imposed a harsh peace on the Qing in the Treaty of Nanking. This led to British control over the island of Hong Kong which they used as a trade port to sell their goods to China. But more than that, more humiliating, was the fact that the Chinese were unable to regulate anything with regards to the so called "foreign devils" and this only helped to increase the smuggling and trade of opium flowing in unprecedented quantities across the South China Sea. As for Lin Zexu he received much of the blame for the outbreak of the war and lost his high position as Viceroy of Liangguang early on. This was honestly an extremely high position for someone as low on the bureaucratic hierarchy as Lin Zexu and one must question whether he would have been able to hold it given the large amounts of court intrigue. Had it not been for the opium crisis it isn't likely that he would have been elevated to such a position to begin with. Ultimately, in an era when China was being torn apart from without but also tearing itself apart from within, Lin Zexu was relegated to a minor post in Xinjiang province before being appointed Governor General of Gansu and later Yunnan, out of the way of the main politics of the Qing Empire. His prestige had plummeted significantly but he was still recognized as a capable servant of the state and a knowledgeable scholar. This was best demonstrated when he was finally ordered to join the war against the Taiping rebels in south and central China, he died an old man while travelling to his new post in 1850.
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