03 June 2018

In praise of Lin Zexu

Lin Zexu 林則徐

It’s not any kind of particular secret that Commissioner Lin Zexu 林則徐 is a hero of mine. The Hokkien gentleman-official of the Qing Dynasty who was responsible for punishing opium traders in Guangdong 廣東 was a morally exemplary man, who cared deeply for the common people and whose actions demonstrated that care. As British Sinologist Herbert Giles summed up his character: ‘He was a fine scholar, a merciful and just official and a true patriot.’ He was willing to tread on the toes of the most formidable sea empire in the world in order to save his countrymen from the slow death of opium addiction. And he did so in the most dramatic way possible: by forcibly seizing 1,210 tonnes of the drug from Western merchants, and publicly destroying it at Humen Town 虎門鎮, beginning on 3 June 1839.

When the British Parliament under the pro-capitalist Whig Prime Minister Lord Palmerston – over the protests of Chartists and Tories, who were against taking military action – declared war on China over Commissioner Lin’s destruction of the opium, Lin himself was charged with the coastal defence of Guangdong against British assault. Lin, who was of a progressive and practical frame of mind when it came to military affairs, managed to seize British guns, mount them on his naval ships, and fortify Canton with modern equipment. Unfortunately for Lin, being neither a self-promoter nor a flatterer, his early defensive successes and his notices to the Daoguang Emperor 道光帝 to update the Chinese navy were ignored, and he was subject to backbiting and court intrigues. He was recalled first to Zhejiang 浙江 and later exiled to Yili, in Xinjiang 新疆伊犁州, as – being the man who destroyed the opium and angered the British – a convenient scapegoat for China’s losses in the Opium War and a convenient ‘whipping boy’ for more politically-astute generals on the Chinese coasts.

While in Yili, apparently Lin Zexu took an active interest in Qazaq culture, drafting reports on the religious and cultural heritage of the Qazaq people. Having been based in Saimasai, Kazakhstan, for a couple of months, I lived only about 200 miles from Lin Zexu’s home-in-exile. I have to wonder if Commissioner Lin wouldn’t have found a kindred spirit in the Qazaq man-of-letters, Abai Qunanbaiuly, who was born in Shyghys the same year that Commissioner Lin was recalled from Yili. The two of them certainly shared a deep sense of patriotism, high personal moral standards, a love of poetry and a desire for reform of their respective countries.

Commissioner Lin Zexu was close friends with the literary-political circle of New Text scholar Liu Fenglu 劉逢祿, particularly his students Wei Yuan 魏源 and Gong Zizhen 龔自珍. Gong Zizhen had apparently helped Commissioner Lin pen his famous letter to Queen Victoria; and Wei Yuan was one of Commissioner Lin’s most ardent supporters before and during the Opium War. When he was facing exile to Yili, Lin went to visit Wei on the way, to write poetry together, commiserate, and so that he could bequeath Wei his store of (at that time) illegal samizdat’-style Western gæographical, political and literary texts. Wei Yuan used these to complete his Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 《海國圖志》.

Commissioner Lin Zexu had only begun to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the government by the end of his life, and his legacy would suffer additional reversals in subsequent generations. But nowadays the Chinese public generally regards him in a positive light – and that assessment is well-deserved for a man who never put his own career or his own self-interest before that of his country or the people under his care.

No comments:

Post a Comment