Lin Zexu’s “Moral Advice to Queen Victoria” sheds light on the smuggling of opium into China by western merchants under the British Empire, and it affected the history of China. The smuggling of such contraband had created political and economical sickness within China. With the opium addiction spreading, Emperor Daoguang (1782-1850) of the Qing dynasty sent commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou to stop the illicit trading and smuggling of opium into China.

In 1760, the canton system was established, forbidding foreign merchants to have direct access to trade. During the time, Guangzhou (also called Canton) was the only place of trade, thus foreigners were subjected to the selling of their goods to the Cohong (Gonghang) merchants, who were the Chinese middlemen. This was problematic to the West due to the fact that international trade and commerce had gained great importance. Thus Guangzhou was the place the Europeans could trade, which drew back the full potential of profits that could be earned. Specifically the Dutch, Portuguese, English, and some other Europeans wanted to establish trade depots and factories in Asia to profit off of China’s high demand of tea and porcelain, as well as India’s spices and indigo. In 1783, Emperor Quainlon (1711-1799) declined all attempts to establish the expansion of trade; Emperor Qianlong declined the British ambassador, Lord George Marcartney. The emperor did not want to form any diplomatic relations because China had always been a self-sufficient country, and did not need any of the goods the foreigners provided. It didn’t stop the British from coming and asking again in 1806; even the Russians asked to set up ports, but all was futile under the Canton system.

The Europeans continued to send their emissaries to China, because they wanted to gain from China’s high demand and use the profit to deal with the growing trading deficit they had with the Chinese. The Europeans had created a debt to the Chinese from purchasing their goods, specifically including their tea. During the 1800’s and onward, the tea imports rose drastically to 15 million pounds, and was valued at 70 million ₤. The British could not profit off the value of tea because china had control over India where the main supply of tea resided. This meant that all tea import had to come from China.

Furthermore, the British turned away from a diplomatic solution and found an alternative currency that matched the value of silver, which was opium. British merchants began the illicit selling opium to the Chinese to attack their trade deficit. Opium sales were a major success, and from 1801 to 1810, the trade deficit had cut over half from 26.6 million to solely 10 million. These illicit actions cost a mass spread of opium addiction throughout China, and with the sales of opium rising, China took an economical hit. The trend had ceased the debt with China and eventually China’s silver flowed to the West. As a result, between 1821-1830, China had to payout 2.3 million tael (tahil), which was China’s currency. It was measured by China’s weight system and was made of silver. Nevertheless, China suffered a financial crisis, and the payout led to shortages of silver, and tael started to devalue.

The Qing Dynasty took action, and Emperor Daoguang (1811-1899) ordered commissioner Lin Zexu to address the issue. Lin Zenx was a top scholar earning his degree or “jinshi” in Chinese classics. Before his career as commissioner, Lin Zexu governed under Jiangsu Province. He watched and concluded that Chinese merchants progressively sold fewer goods, and met only half the demand of the previous decade. In 1813, opium was banned completely. If smokers or sellers were caught, then they were subjected to 100 bamboo blows to body, in addition to wearing an ugly heavy wooden collar in public for a month. Even with the strict law scaring some of the merchants away, opium still spread rapidly through China. Consequently, Lin Zenx seized a large amount of opium. Following the seizure, he made a public announcement by destroying the opium and sending a letter to the British Queen Victoria to try to put an end to the trading of opium. (Primary source stapled on back)

The letter began as a song that represented China, and how they believed that China was the center of the world or “Zhongguo,” which means Central Kingdom. Lin Zenx was trying to be honorable and polite, bringing light to their honorable traditions by mentioning the Celestial Empire. Summing up the first two paragraphs of the letter, Lin Zenx, exercised his politeness to show that he had no intentions on going to war. In paragraph 12 of the letter, he reiterated his politeness by making it as clear and diplomatic as possible. In addition, he speaks up on how the emperor was upset about the British merchant deliberately condoning the selling of opium. Lin Zexu announced that the strict law would fall upon both the Chinese and British, and consequences for illicit selling of opium would be exercised equally. This was not a threat, but it was Lin’s way of asking for help from the British with enforcement. This is the main reason he wrote the letter and made his actions public. Around the time of his announcement, he apprehended large amounts of opium from the British superintendent, Charles Elliot. By demonstrating punishment on the Britain, he would make his voice clear. Again this aggressive approach was not meant to result in war, but to guide the Queen to enforce it. In Lin’s words “Must be able to instruct the various barbarians to observe the law with care.” (Pg 937) that British represents the barbarians and that they need to be controlled. In paragraph 6-8, it talks about the right and wrong about morals, and how it should be followed as a country. Lin followed the teachings of Confucius, assuming that Britain had similar moral codes as Confucius. Lin Zexu goes in to “do as unto others as you do unto yourself,” adding another reason why British should help enforce their merchants to obey the Chinese’s law. Even though Commissioner Lin believed that opium was immoral, it didn’t mean that the British were on the same page. Meanwhile the British supported the selling and buying of opium. Furthermore Lin reiterated the consequences that would be bestowed on any countrymen that condones in the selling and smoking of opium. He ended the letter by kindly expressing the emperor’s intention to solve the opium problem diplomatically.

Lin Zexu’s letter was his best attempt to gain aid from the Queen to enforce the laws of China. The attempt was futile, because the Queen never received the letter. Thus this failure resulted in him banning the Westerns from Guangzhou. All the British that lived in Guangzhou left to Hong Kong where they feared for their lives. Soon they turned to the to the British Parliament, which resulted in the Opium War. After losing seven cities to the British, China sought for peace and agreed to lift all China’s restriction of trade.

The industrial Revolution was a big part of the British overpowering the Chinese in the Opium War. With advanced technology, the British had superior naval ships that were made of steel, while China had boats composed only of wood. The steel ships used coal as their fuel, making them much faster. China had suffered and as a result, China had to reimburse the British for the cost of the war. All trade port had to be open to the British, with limitations to certain nations, and the British had complete control of Hong Kong.

To an extent, I find the result of the Opium War beneficial to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. China’s defeat brought value to the world economically, and all trade ports being opened brought a network of goods to flow throughout all nations. All nations eventually reaped the benefits of trade. The British gained a lot from the trade and from the Opium War. The profits and the growing network helped provide growth of the Industrial Revolution.

“Lin Zexu: “Moral Advice to Queen Victoria”.” Milestone Documents RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.


10 Comments so far

  1.    Anna on July 30, 2015 11:45 pm

    I´m sorry, but:
    “The attempt was futile, because the Queen never received the letter” ……. seriously…?

    “To an extent, I find the result of the Opium War beneficial to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. China’s defeat brought value to the world economically, and all trade ports being opened brought a network of goods to flow throughout all nations. All nations eventually reaped the benefits of trade. The British gained a lot from the trade and from the Opium War. The profits and the growing network helped provide growth of the Industrial Revolution.” is that a fact, a resignation or a positive and happy conclusion?

    Please, I just want to understand..

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