Emperor of China
Declares War on Drugs

opium smokers

Paul Chrastina

Lin Tse-hsü, the governor of the Chinese province of Hu-Huang, was an accomplished administrator and bureaucrat who wrote stylized Confucian poetry in his spare time. During his long career, 53-year-old Lin had acquired a reputation as a man who could be counted on to do the right thing in a difficult situation. His high degree of morality and integrity had earned him the nickname “Lin the Clear Sky,” and his opinions were highly regarded at the court of Chinese Emperor Tao-kuang.

In October, 1838, Lin Tse-hsü was summoned to the Imperial Palace in Peking, where the Emperor personally assigned him to stamp out opium addiction in China.

Lin accepted the assignment, knowing that it represented one of the most difficult problems faced by the Chinese empire. The sale of opium had been made illegal in China in 1800, but the black-market narcotics trade flourished in defiance of the law, and there were an estimated two million Chinese opium addicts. Addiction was especially common around the port city of Canton, where foreign merchants smuggled large quantities of the narcotic drug into China.

Commissioner Lin launched his anti-drug campaign in Canton, where he set up headquarters and took command of the local naval forces. On March 10, 1839, Lin proclaimed that the opium trade would no longer be tolerated in Canton, and he began arresting known opium dealers in the local schools and naval barracks. Those found guilty of purchasing, possessing or selling opium were sentenced to public execution by strangulation. “Let no one think,” Lin proclaimed, “that this is only a temporary effort on behalf of the Emperor. We will persist until the job is finished.”

Lin consulted with local physicians and established a treatment center near Canton. He encouraged opium addicts to enroll there—under amnesty—to shed their habit. To combat the popular belief that opium addiction was an impossible habit to break, Lin frequently told the story of a man he had met who “had been an addict for thirty years, smoking an ounce of opium a day, but who managed to give it up.” Soon, Lin claimed, “his cheeks began to fill out and the strength came back into his limbs.”

Lin’s next move was to crack down on foreign smugglers of opium. He knew that very little opium was grown in China. Most opium was grown in British India, where the drug was a legal commodity. If Lin could stop foreign merchants from smuggling opium into his country, then China’s addiction problem would be solved.

Lin knew that the opium was brought to China in large British clipper ships, which also carried legal trade items. The cargo masters of these ships sold their opium to clandestine Chinese buyers at Lintin Island in Canton Bay. After the foreign merchants unloaded their contraband cargo, they proceeded peacefully up the Pearl River to Canton, where they held permits to buy tea and silk, and to sell a variety of legal trade goods.

To the foreign clipper ships anchored at Canton, Commissioner Lin sent messages demanding that they turn over all of the opium they had aboard, as well as any supplies of the drug that might be stored at Lintin Island. He also commanded them to sign guarantees promising never to bring opium to China again, on pain of trial and execution if found guilty.

The foreign traders were given three days to comply with Commissioner Lin’s demands, but they seemed to take the situation very lightly and made no move to turn over any opium. Lin guessed that the foreigners were counting on corrupt Chinese officials to protect them. Many Cantonese officials, including the viceroy and high ranking naval commanders, were secretly accepting bribes, called “squeeze money” from the western merchants; some were even using Imperial navy vessels to move the contraband drug ashore.

On the morning of March 25, 1839, Commissioner Lin gave the opium smugglers a demonstration of the the seriousness of his intent. He ordered the suspension of all trade with the western merchants, who lived together in a small neighborhood of waterfront homes, offices, and trading docks in Canton. Lin’s troops surrounded the foreign neighborhood, building barricades across the streets to prevent Chinese people from visiting the docks. Three rows of armed Chinese patrol ships lined up in the river opposite the trading houses. The foreign community was informed that it was being held in detention until the opium trade was suppressed.

Lin’s action was protested by the ranking British naval officer in the Chinese port, Captain Charles Elliot. The merchants, Elliot asserted, had the full support of the British government, and were not bound to obey the laws of China.

Commissioner Lin laid down the terms under which the foreign merchants could regain their freedom and their right to trade in Canton. First, they must turn over all of the opium concealed aboard their ships, then they must sign a binding pledge not to bring any more opium to China in the future. Until these requirements were met, the foreigners would not be permitted to purchase any tea, rice, or silk for export.

On March 27, the merchants agreed to surrender their opium to Commisioner Lin.

When Lin informed Emperor Tao-kuang of his success, he was rewarded with an exquisitely prepared dinner of roebuck venison, a message signifying “Promotion Assured,” and a hand painted silk scroll from the Emperor bearing the characters “Good Luck, Long Life.”

During the next two months, over two and a half million pounds of processed opium were delivered under tight security from the merchant ships to the Chinese mainland.

Commisioner Lin was faced with the problem of disposing of the enormous stockpile of opium which he had confiscated. After consulting with Cantonese engineers and chemists, Lin had three large trenches dug along the seacoast. Each trench measured seventy five wide by one hundred fifty feet long, was seven feet deep, and was lined with flagstones and rough-hewn timbers. The three trenches were surrounded by a tall bamboo fence.

On the first day of June, 1839, Commissioner Lin composed a ritual address to the Spirit of the South China Sea. He advised the spirit that he “should shortly be dissolving opium and draining it off to the great ocean,” and suggested that all sea creatures should retreat to deeper water “to avoid being contaminated,” until the opium was completely run off.

On June 3, the destruction of the foreign opium began. The trenches were filled with water, and the first chests of opium were broken open and thrown in to soak. Next, large quantities of salt and lime were dumped into the mixture. The ensuing chemical reaction heated and liquefied the opium, releasing clouds of nauseating gas. A team of five hundred closely guarded laborers with shovels and hoes stirred the slowly decomposing material and ran it off into a stream that led to the sea. The first worker who was caught trying to steal some opium was immediately beheaded as a warning to the rest.

For the next two weeks, Commissioner Lin supervised the methodical destruction of the opium, or “foreign mud,” from a pavilion set up near the trenches. When he advised the Emperor that the work was finished, Lin received the warm reply, “This is something that is greatly delightful to the hearts of mankind.”

Despite his success, Commissioner Lin could see that the British merchants were not yet willing to abide by the laws of China. Trying to escape from Lin’s authority, some merchants had moved away from Canton and sailed down the Canton estuary to the Portuguese-controlled port of Macao, where it seemed they were intending to resume smuggling opium. Other British ships anchored near the sparsely inhabited island of Hong Kong, at the mouth of the estuary.

On July 12, a Chinese villager was killed by a rampaging gang of drunken British seamen who had come ashore at Kowloon, a mainland village near Hong Kong. Lin demanded that the men responsible for the murder be turned over to him for punishment. Captain Elliot responded that the seamen could only be tried under British jurisdiction.

Captain Elliot then tried the sailors himself, with results that were not satisfactory to Commissioner Lin. One seaman was acquitted of a murder charge for lack of evidence, and five others were found guilty of participation in a general riot. When Lin again demanded that the guilty men be delivered to Canton for justice, Elliot sent word that the men would all be appropriately punished when they returned to England.

To force Elliot to submit to his demands, Lin ordered that delivery of all rice, tea, meat and fresh vegetables to the anchored ships at Macao to be intercepted and cut off. Freshwater springs that were known to be used by the British at various points along the coast were poisoned. Large banners were posted to warn Chinese villagers not to drink from the streams. Lin then pressured the Portuguese authorities at Macao to evict the British from their harbor, under penalty of severe trade restrictions. These drastic measures forced all of the British ships to retreat from Macao to Hong Kong by the middle of August.

On August 31, Commissioner Lin learned that the merchant ships anchored off Hong Kong had been joined by a twenty-eight gun British frigate. Although this news was not good, Lin, who had the use of a fleet of Chinese war junks at his disposal, was not frightened by the arrival of a single British warship.

Lin assumed that his Chinese warships were superior to the ships of the British navy. He thought that Europeans were primitive barbarians. British fabrics were inferior to Chinese silk, British earthenware was inferior to Chinese ceramics, and the general behavior of British seamen seemed uncivilized, so Lin assumed that the British navy must be inferior to the Chinese navy. Lin did not know that even British civilian merchant ships were armed with cannon that were far deadlier and more accurate than any of the guns of the Chinese fleet.

On September 4, two British merchant ships and a launch from the newly arrived warship attacked three Chinese junks that tried to prevent them from landing at Kowloon to obtain water and supplies.

Although the Chinese warships returned the British fire, they did no damage to the British ships, and were forced to retreat after being badly shot up by cannonballs.

The captains of the defeated Chinese junks feared that their failure would be viewed by higher authorities as a disgraceful act of cowardice. The captains therefore reported to Commissioner Lin that they had won a victory and had sunk a British ship.

Commissioner Lin forwarded this version of the encounter to the Emperor and composed an angry proclamation the British, warning them that because “you have presumptuously fired upon and attacked our naval cruisers, our army and navy will now be required to launch a devastating attack upon you, and you will suffer just punishment at our hands.”

Lin informed the Emperor that he was preparing to permanently drive the merchants away from Hong Kong. By September 22, Lin had assembled a fleet of eighty junks and fireships at the mouth of the Pearl River.

Confident that the British were alarmed by his preparations for naval warfare, Lin wrote a poem noting that “a vast display of Imperial might has shaken all the foreign tribes, and, if they now confess their guilt, we will not be too hard on them.”

Lin ignored messages from Captain Elliot, who impudently demanded that British merchants be allowed to buy the last crop of Chinese tea that had been harvested that year.

Commissioner Lin insisted that the British could not enjoy any of the benefits of legal trade unless they agreed to obey Chinese laws and stopped importing opium. If the British could not honor these terms, they were ordered to leave Chinese waters and never return.

Captain Elliot refused to concede.

In early November, Lin learned that a second British warship, an eighteen-gun frigate, had joined the British merchant fleet at Hong Kong. On November 3, the two British warships approached the Chinese fleet with a sealed letter, demanding supplies and the immediate resumption of trade.

The admiral of the Chinese fleet returned the merchants’ letter unopened, at which point the frigates attacked the anchored Chinese fleet. The British immediately sank five of the largest Chinese war junks and severely damaged many others in an attack that lasted just under 45 minutes.

Commissioner Lin now faced serious difficulties. If he truthfully reported his defeat to the Emperor, he was likely to be disgraced and punished. He therefore kept his report of the battle brief and vague, describing six imaginary “smashing blows” that had been inflicted on the impetuous British barbarians.

Pleased with Lin’s report, Emperor Tao-kuang gave his thanks. The Emperor also inquired whether or not Commisioner Lin had, in fact, completely stopped the smuggling of opium. Independent reports had arrived in Peking, claiming that small British boats were delivering chests of opium to remote villages along the seacoast north of Canton. The Emperor reminded Lin that his job was to “clear away the opium-evil throughout all of China,” not just in Canton.

Lin assured the Emperor that the despicable foreign drug trade was rapidly drawing to a close. He spent the next several months fortifying Canton harbor by sinking barges loaded with stones at its entrances. He also purchased an American sailing ship and outfitted it with cannon supplied by some enterprising Portugese merchants.

In the beginning of June, 1840, Lin suddenly found himself confronting a large British expeditionary force that had come from Singapore, which included steam-powered gunboats and thousands of British marines. In a report to the Emperor, Lin wrote, “English warships are now arriving at Canton. Although it is certain that they will not venture to create a disturbance here, I am certain that they will, like great rats, attempt to shelter the vile sellers of opium.” Still confident that the Chinese coast-guard could prevail in the event of trouble, Lin concluded “People say that our junks and guns are no match for the British.... But they do not know!”

Commissioner Lin’s forces, however, proved to be no match for the invaders, who immediately imposed a blockade on the Canton estuary, then attacked and took control of strategically important sites along the China coast.

The British commander sent a sobering message to Emperor Tao-kuang in Peking, demanding “satisfaction and redress” for Commissioner Lin’s actions at Canton.

On August 21, 1840, the Emperor dismissed Lin Tse-hsü from his post as Imperial Commissioner.

“You have caused this war by your excessive zeal.” the Emperor wrote.

“You have lied to us, disguising in your dispatches the true color of affairs. Instead of helping us, you have only caused confusion to arise. Now, one thousand unending problems are sprouting. You have behaved as if your arms are tied. You are no better than a wooden dummy. As we think about your grievous failings, we become furious, and then melancholy.”

Stripped of his title, Lin Tse-hsü was exiled to the isolated northern frontier province of Ili, where he was given the task of supervising large scale irrigation and flood control projects.

Lin Tse-hsü gradually recovered from the disgrace of his failure to put an end to the opium trade. Ten years after his dismissal, the Emperor again summoned him into service. Lin was reinstated as Imperial Commissioner, and assigned to travel to the rebellious province of Kwangsi to negotiate with rebel factions. Lin Tse-hsü collapsed and died while en route to Kwangsi on November 22, 1850, at the age of 67.

The successive Imperial Commissioners who replaced Lin Tse-hsü in Canton were unable to stop the opium traffic. In conflicts known as the First and Second Opium Wars, British naval and marine forces seized control of Hong Kong, ravaged the Chinese coastline and briefly occupied the capital city of Peking.

In 1858 the Chinese government, bowing to British demands, reluctantly legalized the importation of opium.


The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. by Arthur Waley. George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1958

Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. by Hsin-pao Chang. Harvard U. Press, 1964.

The Chinese Opium Wars. by Jack Beeching. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

The Opium Wars in China. by Edgar Holt. Putnam, 1964.

Foreign Mud. by Maurice Collis. W.W. Norton Co., Inc., 1946.

British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-1842. by Michael Greenberg. Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Strangers at the Gate: Social disorder in South China, 1839-1861. by Frederic Wakeman, Jr. University of California Press, 1966.

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