On this date in 1839 in Humen in southern China, Lin Zexu (林则徐) destroyed 1.2 million kg of opium confiscated from British merchants, providing Britain with a casus belli to open hostilities, resulting in the First Opium War.
Lin was born in Houguan (侯官; modern Fuzhou, Fujian). The second son of the family, his father was Bin Re, a Chinese official active in the Qing dynasty. As a child, he was already “unusually brilliant”. In 1811, he received a jinshi degree in the imperial examination, and in the same year, he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service. He was opposed to the opening of China but felt the need of a better knowledge of foreigners, which drove him to collect a great deal of material about the geography and cultures of the world. He later gave this material to Wei Yuan, who published the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms in 1843. He became Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837, where he launched a suppression campaign against the trading of opium.
An ever-growing demand for tea and low demand for British products, combined with China’s acceptance of only silver (and not gold) in payment, resulted in large continuous trade deficits. Attempts by the British (Macartney in 1793), the Dutch (Van Braam in 1794), Russia (Golovkin in 1805) and the British yet again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were resounding failures. After 1817, the British began counter-trading in Indian opium, as a way to both reduce the trade deficit and finally gain profit from the formerly money-losing Indian colony. Opium was most commonly used as a treatment for cholera. The Qing government originally tolerated the importation of opium because it imposed an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England, which profited the monopoly on tea exports of the Qing imperial treasury and its agents. However, by 1820, accelerated opium consumption reversed the flow of silver, just when the Qing imperial treasury needed to finance the suppression of rebellions within China. The Viceroy of Guangdong began efforts to constrain the trade, but due to large increases in the supply of opium, the long coast line of South China, and corruption (the Qing coastal navy was one of the largest smugglers of opium), these efforts failed. Meanwhile, memorials (official letters) received from officials such as Huang Juezi urged the Daoguang Emperor to take measures that would eliminate the opium trade.
A formidable bureaucrat known for his adherence to Confucian values, Lin was sent to Guangdong (Canton) as imperial commissioner by the emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium by 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 merchants’ enclave despite previous agreements and understandings. It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. Beginning 3 June 1839, 500 workers labored for 23 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the sea outside of Humen Town.
In 1839, Lin also wrote an extraordinary memorial to Queen Victoria in the form of an open letter published in Canton, urging her to end the opium trade. (full text
The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality. 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. Lin appears to have been unaware that opium was not banned in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, and was commonly used for its medicinal rather than recreational effects. He accuses the “barbarians” (a reference to the private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that the Queen 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?
It’s probably just as well that the letter never arrived as I am sure Victoria would not have been amused. Neither Lin nor the emperor appreciated the depth or changed nature of the problem. They did not see the change in international trade structures, the commitment of the British government to protecting the interests of private traders (a commitment the Qing government would never have thought of), and the peril to the survival of the British traders posed when they surrendered their opium. Moreover, the British viewed the opening of China to free trade as a moral issue as well.
Open hostilities between China and Britain started in 1839 in what later would be called “The First Opium War.” The immediate effect was that Lin banned all trade with Britain unless they signed a bond stopping all opium imports, and Elliot issued an order to British companies not to sign. Before this, Lin had pressured the Portuguese government of Macau, so the British found themselves without refuge, except for the bare and rocky harbors of Hong Kong. Soon, however, Qing imperial forces were faced with a British imperial force, which included the East India Company’s (EIC) steam warship Nemesis and improved weapons.
In late October, the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Canton Province. This ship was owned by Quakers, who refused to deal in opium. The ship’s captain, Warner, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority when he banned the signing of the no opium trade bond. The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpee, an island near Humen. To prevent other British ships from following the Thomas Coutts, Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton. Then the British Royal Navy ships HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon.
The Qing navy’s official report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel, also reporting a great victory for that day. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk. Elliot reported that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpee between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that the Chinese would reject any contacts with the British and there would eventually be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpee and head for Tung Lo Wan, 20 miles (30 km) from Macau, but the merchants preferred to harbor in Hong Kong.
In 1840, Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods there in exchange for paying rent and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue supplying food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to halt material assistance to the British in China. In retaliation, the British Government and EIC decided that they would attack Canton. The military cost would be paid by the British Government.
Some commentators claim that Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium War to maintain the principle of free trade. Britain certainly needed to uphold its reputation, its honor, and its commitment to global free trade. China was pressing Britain just when the British faced serious pressures in the Near East, on the Indian frontier, and in Latin America. In the end the government’s need to maintain its prestige abroad forced the decision to go to war.
But there were critics at home. William Gladstone denounced the war as “unjust and iniquitous” and criticized Lord Palmerston’s willingness “to protect an infamous contraband traffic.” The public and press in the United States and Britain expressed outrage that Britain was supporting the opium trade. Lord Palmerston justified military action by saying that no one could “say that he honestly believed the motive of the Chinese Government to have been the promotion of moral habits” and that the war was being fought to stem China’s balance of payments deficit. John Quincy Adams commented that opium was “a mere incident to the dispute… the cause of the war is the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal.”
In June 1840, an expeditionary force of British Indian army troops aboard 15 barracks ships, four steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats reached Canton from Singapore. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade.
British military superiority drew heavily on newly applied technology. British warships wrought havoc on coastal towns; the steam ship Nemesis was able to move against the winds and tides and support a gun platform with very heavy guns and congreve rockets. In addition, the British troops were the first to be armed with modern rifles, which fired more rapidly and with greater accuracy than matchlock muskets and artillery wielded by Manchu Bannermen and Han Green Standard Army troops, though Chinese cannons had been in use since previous dynasties.Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, a British expedition blockaded the mouth of the Pearl River and moved north to take Zhoushan. Led by Commodore J.J. Gordon Bremer in the Wellesley, they captured the empty city after an exchange of gunfire with shore batteries that caused only minor casualties.
The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue forts that guarded the mouth of the Pearl River—the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. Meanwhile, at the far west in Tibet, the start of the Sino-Sikh war added another front to the strained Qing military. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated Bannermen at Ningbo and at the military post of Dinghai. In the same year the British made three unsuccessful attempts to capture the harbor of Keelung on the northeast coast of Taiwan.
Once the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and captured the emperor’s tax barges, a devastating blow since it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a fraction of what it had been. By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and occupied Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China’s first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanking. In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa respectively.
The war marked the start of what 20th century nationalists called the “Century of Humiliation”. The ease with which the British forces defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies damaged the Qing dynasty’s prestige. The Treaty of Nanking was a step to opening the lucrative Chinese market to global commerce and the opium trade. The interpretation of the war, which was long the standard in the People’s Republic of China, was summarized in 1976: The Opium War, “in which the Chinese people fought against British aggression, marked the beginning of modern Chinese history and the start of the Chinese people’s bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism.”
The Treaty of Nanjing, the Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, and two French and American agreements were all “unequaled treaties” signed between 1842 and 1844. The terms of these treaties undermined China’s traditional mechanisms of foreign relations and methods of controlled trade. Five ports were opened for trade, gunboats, and foreign residence: Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. Hong Kong was seized by the British and became a free and open port. Tariffs were abolished thus preventing the Chinese from raising future duties to protect domestic industries and extraterritorial practices exempted Westerners from Chinese law. This made them subject to their own civil and criminal laws of their home country. Most importantly, the opium problem was never addressed and after the treaty was signed opium addiction doubled. China was forced to pay 21 million silver taels as an indemnity, which was used to pay compensation for the traders’ opium destroyed by Commissioner Lin. A couple years after the treaties were signed internal rebellion began to threaten foreign trade. Due to the Qing government’s inability to control collection of taxes on imported goods, the British government convinced the Manchu court to allow Westerners to partake in government official affairs. By the 1850s the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, one of the most important bureaucracies in the Manchu Government, was partially staffed and managed by Western Foreigners. Some time between 1858 and 1860 opium was legalized.
Commissioner Lin, often referred to as “Lin the Clear Sky” for his moral probity, was made the scapegoat. He was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium imports and usage as well as for provoking an unwinnable war through his rigidity and lack of understanding of the changing world. Nevertheless, as the Chinese nation formed in the 20th century, Lin became viewed as a hero, and has been immortalized at various locations around the world.
I talked about Cantonese cuisine a little while ago https://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-4th-movement/ and suggested that replicating recipes from China was virtually impossible, and that you could come here instead. I can’t really be quite so craven again so soon. What I can suggest is that when cooking Chinese food in the West you try to stick to traditional ingredients. Western meats – chicken, pork, and beef – are not quite the same, but will do. Western pork is not anywhere near as fatty or flavorful as Chinese pork, but is probably healthier. I’ve often had dishes in Yunnan where the “pork” was, in fact, little cubes of fat with no meat. Early on I learnt to say 没有过多的肥猪肉 – “not too much fat” to quizzical looks which I think meant “idiot foreigner.” Actually, Cantonese dishes are much less fatty than those from Yunnan. Chinese vegetables are not difficult to find in the West. The main principles I urge are not to use Western onions, carrots, or broccoli. For onions use only green onions (cut in 1” lengths), and broccoli rabe for broccoli.
In Buenos Aires I used to make a tasty dish of stir fried vegetables after one of my monthly outings to barrio chino. The limitation I had, and all Western cooks have, is that you cannot get the wok hot enough to do a really good job. Cooks in China use gas jets that look like blast furnaces, which can get the wok fiery hot in seconds. You’ll never replicate this at home. Anyway, do the best you can.
Fire up your wok until it smokes. You can use a heavy skillet if you must, but it will not get the ingredients cooked evenly like a nicely rounded wok where you can toss them freely. When the wok is smoking, add a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil (or lard) and swirl it around to coat the surface. Toss in your vegetables of choice cut in slices or bite sized pieces: green onions, minced garlic, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, Chinese mushrooms, lotus root, flowering chives, broccoli rabe, or whatever. Fry on the highest heat for about 2 minutes, tossing and stirring with a rounded spatula constantly. Then throw in flavoring sauce of choice. I used to use a mix of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and rice wine. For a “cleaner” taste I used chicken broth, rice wine, and a little rice starch. Toss again for a minute or so to coat the vegetables and reduce the sauce. Serve with steamed rice.