The Chinese official Lin Tse-hsü (1785-1850) was the imperial commissioner in charge of suppressing the opium trade in Canton in 1839 and the first Chinese to advocate learning about the West.
Lin Tse-hsü was born on Aug. 30, 1785, in Fukien. In 1811 he received the chin-shih (the highest academic degree) and became a member of the Hanlin Academy. As an official in the provinces, beginning in 1820, he gained a reputation for his sincerity and dedication. Between 1820 and 1850, in any crisis situation involving flood control, sea transportation, the salt administration, or military affairs, Lin was almost certain to be considered for the job.
In the late 1830s opium smuggling in China had reached crisis proportions. On July 10, 1838, Lin submitted a memorial in which he advocated strong measures for its suppression. His ideas, as well as their implementation while he was governor general of Hunan and Hupei between 1837 and 1838, resulted in his being appointed imperial commissioner with full powers to suppress the opium evil. He arrived in Canton, the center of the opium trade, on March 10, 1839.
In Canton, Lin used a "get-tough" policy to bring the trade to a halt and force the foreign traders to surrender their existing supplies of opium. A total of 2, 613, 879 pounds of opium, worth about $9 million, was turned over to Lin, which to everyone's amazement he promptly destroyed. In an attempt to persuade the British to stop producing opium in India, Lin also wrote his famous letter to Queen Victoria in which he admonished her, on moral grounds, to stop the practice.
While in Canton, Lin collected every scrap of information he could about the West—mainly from Western periodicals which he had translated into Chinese. This material was later compiled under the title Gazetteer of the Four Continents and was the first book to provide the Chinese with any reasonably reliable information about the West.
Lin's high-handed tactics and his insistence that foreigners be subject to Chinese law brought matters to a head. In August 1839, when the British refused to turn over some seamen involved in the murder of a Chinese, all British residents were ordered to leave China, and the Opium War (1839-1842) was on.
When it became obvious in 1840 that China could not win the war, Lin was dismissed and later banished to the northwest frontier. He was recalled in 1845 and given high office, but he retired in 1849. When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850, he was again appointed imperial commissioner to suppress the rebels, but he died en route to his new post.
The best book in English on Lin is Chang Hsin-pao, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War (1964). See also Gideon Chen, Lin Tse-hsü: Pioneer Promoter of the Adoption of Western Means of Maritime Defense in China (1934). An extensive biography of Lin Tse-hsü is in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, vol. 2 (1943).