Lin Zexu 1785–1850

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Lin Zexu

Lin Zexu played a crucial role in bringing about the Opium War (1839–1842) between China and Great Britain, and thus the treaty port era that followed British victory in that war. Born in 1785, Lin completed the civil service exams in 1811 and rose rapidly thereafter. He was part of a group of officials and scholars who favored practical study and hard-line frontier policies, whether in Central Asia or in Canton, where he was transferred in 1838 specifically to deal with the opium trade. Opium imports began about 1700 but soared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, multiplying roughly forty-fold between 1767 and 1838; 1838 imports were enough for at least 2 million addicts, and perhaps as many as 10 million. The resulting silver drain strained China's fiscal and monetary systems. Earlier discussions of possible opium legalization were shelved, and Lin began to crack down on both addicts and importers. When Lin confiscated and burned British opium stocks, London chose war, and British gunboats (which used steam to sail upriver behind Chinese forts) prevailed. Lin was dismissed and sent into exile in the far west of China; he died in 1850, just as he was being recalled to service. Though his policies failed, Lin became an enduring symbol of incorruptibility and patriotism.

SEE ALSO Alcock, Rutherford; Canton System; China; Drugs, Illicit; Empire, British; Empire, Qing; Factories; Guangzhou;Hong Kong; Imperialism; Jardine Matheson;Tea;Treaties.


Chang Hsin-pao. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Hummel, Arthur, ed. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1944.

Polachek, James. The Inner Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Kenneth Pomeranz