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Pioneers of Modern China
Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese
by Lee Khoon Choy (Former Ambassador of Singapore)

Chapter 1: Fujian Rén & Lin Ze Xu: The Fuzhou Hero Who Destroyed Opium

The Opium War -- and Lin Ze Xu

Modern Chinese history actually started after the outbreak of the Opium War. The British had started to smuggle opium to Chinese ports and spread the habit of opium smoking among the Chinese people. By the 1830s, there were some ten million opium addicts in China, leading to a serious drain of silver westwards. By 1835, there were already two million opium-smokers in the coastal cities of China. From 1800 to 1838, the British had smuggled hundreds of thousand cases of opium into China. And at the time, Western trade was conducted through the monopolistic of.cial Chinese agents called cohong, who were forced to spend half of the year in Macau, were only allowed to live in the "factory area" -- a small strip of land opposite Guangzhou, and were forbidden to enter the city and bring their wives.

In 1838, Lin Ze Xu was appointed the Imperial Commissioner in charge of dealing with opium smuggling. In 1839, Emperor Dao Guang ordered Commissioner Lin to suppress the entire opium trade. A death penalty was imposed on anyone involved in the trade. Lin discovered 22 British ships, each loaded with a thousand cases of opium. He ordered the owners of the opium to surrender the opium and gave them an ultimatum. The British initially tried to bribe him and surrendered only a thousand cases. When they failed to bribe him, they threatened him. Lin, being a patriot, insisted that they surrender the whole amount. When the British de.ed him, he ordered his men to burn all the opium and throw it into the sea. This provoked the British and a clash took place between the forces of the British and Lin's men. The burning of the opium resulted in the Opium War in 1840.

Lin Ze Xu is from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian. Fujian province also produced several prominent political figures, one of whom Chen Bo Da, was the ghost writer for Mao Ze Dong and Lin Biao, who was sentenced to death because of his involvement with the Gang of Four. Another prominent Fujian Rén is Lin Sen, the first President of the Republic of China. Of course, Fujian also produced China's most notorious smuggler Lai Chang Xing, who is now hiding in Canada, wanted by the Chinese Government. Fujian also produced several prominent scholars including Yan Fu, who was the earliest Chinese author to translate Western literature into Chinese. His translation included Adam Smith's The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Fujian: Building on Fortune

Poor overland communications, a rugged interior and a long coastline made Fujian one of the most aggressive and outward-looking of China's provinces besides Guangdong. Of this southeastern province's population of 36.2 million people, most are descendants of the Yue tribe and are by nature blunt, frank, outspoken, and rough. They are aggressive in business, not intellectually inclined, and are known for their courage, stamina and integrity.

Fujian Rén are China's most multilingual people; they speak different kinds of dialects within the province. The majority of them speak Minnan Huà This dialect is spoken in counties such as Xiamen (whose old name is Amoy), Zhangzhou, Zhao'an, Tong'an, Nan'an, Quanzhou, and Yongchun. However, Minnan Huà is not understood in other Fujian counties like Fuzhou, where the people speak their own Fuzhou dialect, nor in Putian, where a dialect called Henghua is spoken. The people in Yongding and the western side of Fujian speak the Hakka dialect.

A contemporary Fujian name now notorious throughout the world is Lai Chang Xing -- China's biggest smuggler. He is not a highly educated man, but a brainy man from Jinjiang, a district under the administration of Quanzhou. He became the richest man in China but sneaked out of the country when he was placed on the wanted list and is now staying in Canada awaiting repatriation. It is said that he made his fortune smuggling motorcars, petroleum, and other expensive goods into China, with the help of all ranks of government officals, including leading military personalities, through the use of bribes. Many of these leading government officals, including mayors and intelligence chiefs, have been sentenced to death by the firing squad.

Two other famous personalities from Fujian are Lin Sen and Chen Bo Da. Lin Sen was the President of the Republic of China (19321945) who took over from Chiang Kai Shek after Chiang stepped down. Chen Bo Da was Mao Ze Dong's closest con.dant and head of the Cultural Revolution group who was later sentenced to death and hanged.

Lin Ze Xu: The Fuzhou Hero Who Destroyed Opium

Lin Ze Xu's father Lin Bin Re was originally from Putian but moved to Fuzhou. He was a xiucai (top government of.cial during the Qing dynasty) who failed several times and succeeded only when he was 29 years old. He studied so hard that his eyesight was affected. He married late at 37 and his first son died during childbirth. Therefore Ze Xu was the only son in the Lin family.


Lin Ze Xu was unusually brilliant as a young boy. He did not believe in the classical method of learning by rote and tried to use his brains to solve matters. He started reading when he was four and at seven, he could write essays. At 13, he came out first in his class. At 14, he passed the xiucai examination and at 20, he became a juren.

At the time when the Fujian hero Zheng Cheng Gong was using Xiamen as a base to fight the Dutch in Taiwan, Ze Xu was offered a job as a secretary in the Ministry of Sea Defence in that city at the age of 21. He was much influenced by the courage of Zheng Cheng Gong, alias Koxinga, an anti-Manchu hero who had liberated Taiwan. There were many foreigners in Xiamen and Ze Xu had the opportunity to observe the behavior of the foreigners and the corrupt behavior of many foreign firms in their connections with the Chinese. He saw opium being smuggled in Xiamen and was aware of the evildoings of the smugglers.

When he reached the age of 26, Ze Xu went to Beijing to sit for the higher examination of the jinshi and passed after having failed twice. When in Beijing, he saw the decadent lives of many corrupt officals who only knew how to drink and have fun. This was at a time when the Qing dynasty was about to topple and the whole society was rotten. He was greatly disappointed with what he saw.

In 1816 when he was 31, Lin was sent to Wuzhang in Hubei as the Chief Examiner to supervise the provincial scholastic examination. He was so strict that many candidates who had tried to bribe examination officals failed their examinations and instead, many poor and brainy candidates passed and got through. It was the first time the poor ever had the chance to succeed; prior to Lin Ze Xu's appointment as the Chief Examiner, many poor candidates failed because they could not afford to bribe officals or buy examination papers sold in the market at exorbitant prices. Lin's performance won him a good image in the eyes of the people but he offended the corrupt officals.

In 1831, Lin was appointed the supervisor of drainage systems in Jiangsu. During that year, a dire .ood and famine spread in Jiangsu. Farmers staged a protest and more than a hundred thousand farmers came with their changkol and other farming tools to demonstrate against the government's inef.ciency. Lin's superior advocated using force to suppress the farmers but he suggested taking a softer line of persuasion by reducing rent, helping the farmers, and punishing the hoarders that were the evil merchants. His tactics paid off and the farmers went home satis.ed. This was the first success in his career.

When Lin was 35, he was sent as a supervisor to another county in Hubei. There, his actions offended a powerful and unscrupulous local general who was involved in piracy and often ill-treated the villagers. As a Fuzhou Rén, Lin was brave, straightforward and had no fear, even of the devil. He proceeded to report the wrongdoings of this general to the emperor. As a result, the general was punished and later died in Fujian.

At 36, Lin was promoted to be Chief Executive Of.cer of three cities. He helped the three cities not only in solving the problems of .ooding and other natural disasters but also curbed corruption and the decadent lifestyle in the cities. He closed gambling dens and brothels and punished those who engaged in such activities. He was highly respected by the ordinary people but offended the corrupt officals who were out to make money.

Lin was later sent to Jiangsu to solve irrigation problems and to help increase production. After he had proved himself fit for better assignments, he was promoted to the position of Governor of Hunan and Guangdong. He was already 47 years old and started to tackle the more important tasks of dealing with the foreigners. His honesty and righteousness earned him the legendary name of "Bao Qing Tian" -- the most popular and incorruptible judge of the Song dynasty.

Imperial commissioner Lin & the Opium War

In 1800, the British navy aboard the ship named Dian Xi arrived at Wangbo and started to firing at the civilians, killing one person. The Qing authorities demanded compensation but the British ignored their demand. In 1807, sailors of another British naval vessel Hai Huang Xin (Star of the Sea King) created trouble in Guangdong and killed several Chinese. They paid only a fine of four English pounds.

Since MacCartney had failed in his mission to persuade China to open its ports, Britain's triangular trade, by which imports of tea and silks were paid for by opium exports from India to China, had increased dramatically. By the late 18th century, the tea trade was worth $20 million while Chinese imports of opium had risen from around a thousand chests to forty thousand chests.

Opium is the oldest-recorded and best-documented of drugs: the Sumerians of the fourth millennium called the poppy the "Plant of Joy". Egyptians prescribed opium as a kind of medicine to its people in the 16th century BC. The Minoans had a Poppy Goddess and Homer knew it as nepenthe. When the Romans systematized medicine, opium took its place as the principle sopori.c. In Britain, opium had the blessing of the Royal Society of Arts, which instituted an award of 50 guineas to anyone who could successfully cultivate the drug in Britain. It was used for reducing fever but it could also be used as a dangerous drug that weakens the body and soul and renders the human being into a useless person. It makes one forget the world, entering a world of bliss and pleasure, spiritually .oating in the air and at the same time allows one's energy to be dissipated until a time when one is too weak and dies.

Lin recruited 5,000 men of Chinese minority who were good at martial arts and acquainted with the sea, and trained them as soldiers to fight the British. Then came an incident where a British killed a Chinese. Lin insisted that the British hand over the culprit but they refused. Lin cut off all food supply to the British. British soldiers started to attack Xiamen, Ningbo, and other coastal areas. As the Chinese soldiers were weak in arms, they retreated and suffered many casualties.

When the British expeditionary force took over Shanghai and advanced to Nanjing, Emperor Dao Guang conceded defeat. This ultimately led to the signing of the Nanjing Treaty in 1842, which ended the OpiumWar. As a result of the treaty, the cohong trade monopoly in Guangzhou was abolished and the Chinese agreed to set fair and regular tariffs and pay an indemnity of 20 million silver dollars. In addition, eight Chinese ports, including Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai, were opened to the foreign traders of the Western powers and given extraterritorial rights exempted from Chinese laws, and Hong Kong was ceded to Britain.

Exile in Xinjiang

After the Opium War had ended, Lin was made a scapegoat. In 1842, the weak emperor, under heavy Western pressure, banished him to Xinjiang. The local inhabitants of Xinjiang were mostly Muslims and Lin mixed well with them and took care of them. As an irrigation expert, he helped to solve some of the province's water shortage problems by building a canal that is almost five kilometers long to draw water from the river to provide water for the people. As an engineer, he also discovered a new way of digging wells. Apart from doing his duty as an engineer, Lin also spent time writing books about naval matters. In Xinjiang, Lin met a Muslim general who was kind to him because he respected Lin.

Appointed to suppress the taiping rebels

When the Taiping Rebellion (1851C1864) was stirring up in 1850, Lin was reinstated as one of the ministers to suppress the rebellions in Guangxi. The Qing rulers wanted to exploit his image and talent to help liquidate the Taiping Rebellion. When Lin was travelling towards Shantou, the Taiping rebels heard news of it but let him pass because they too respected this great hero who had fought the British opium-smugglers. But Lin died on his way to Shantou in 1850 before he could assume his new task.

Lin died at the age of 66. He is remembered not only by Fuzhou Rén but by all Chinese for his contribution in dealing with the British against opium-smuggling.

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