context: this letter was written by Lin Tse-Hsu (1785-1850), the Chinese Commissioner in Canton whose actions precipitated the Opium Wars.
Opium had been used in China for centuries, but it entered the country in large amounts after the opening of the tea trade. The English East India Company sold the opium to China for silver. Opium use soared; when the Emperor's son died of overdose, the Emperor decided to block the drug import. Lin Tse-Hsu was the man that had to enforce that. The English traders were naturally unhappy about losing all their revenue (opium was a product of other areas of the British empire, mostly India).
The Commissioner proceeded to seize the opium and destroy it, which drew military retaliation from the British. China lost, and had to sign the Treaty of Nankin which lead, among other things, to Hong Kong being given to England. Commissioner Lin was dismissed from office and sent into exile.
It is not clear whether Queen Victoria ever read this letter.
A communication: magnificently our great Emperor soothes and pacifies China and the
foreign countries, regarding all with the same kindness. If there is profit, then he
shares it with the peoples of the world; if there is harm, then he removes it on behalf of
the world. This is because he takes the mind of heaven and earth as his mind.
The kings of your honorable country by a tradition handed down from generation to
generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read
your successive tributary memorials saying, "In general our countrymen who go to
trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor's gracious treatment and equal
justice." and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable
rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for the
Celestial grace. For this reason the Celestial Court in soothing those from afar has
redoubled its polite and kind treatment. The profit from trade has been enjoyed by them
continuously for two hundred years. This is the source from which your country has become
known for its wealth.
But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of
barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle
opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces.
Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are
not tolerated by the laws of heaven and are unanimoly hated by human beings. His Majesty
the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his
commissioner, to come to Kwangtung (also spelled Canton), and together with the governor-general and governor
jointly to investigate and settle this matter.
All those people in China who sell opium or smoke opium should receive the death
penalty. We trace the crime of those barbarians who through the years have been selling
opium, then the deep harm they have wrought and the great profit they have usurped should
fundamentally justify their execution according to law. We take into to consideration,
however, the fact that the various barbarians have still known how to repent their crimes
and return to their allegiance to us by taking the 20,183 chests of opium from their
storeships and petitioning us, through their consular officer (superintendent of trade),
Elliot, to receive it. It has been entirely destroyed and this has been faithfully
reported to the Throne in several memorials by this comissioner and his colleagues.
Fortunately we have received a specially extended favor from His Majesty the Emperor,
who considers that for those who voluntarily surrender there are still some circumstances
to paliate their crime, and so for the time being he has magnanimously excused them from
punishment. But as for those who again violate the opium prohibition, it is difficult for
the law to pardon them repeatedly. Having established new regulations, we presume that the
ruler of your honorable country, who takes delight in our culture and whose disposition is
inclined towards us, must be able to instruct the various barbarians to observe the law
with care. It is only neccessary to explain to them the advantages and advantages and then
they will know that the legal code of the Celestial Court must be absolutely obeyed with
We find your country is sixty or seventy thousand li (three li make one mile,
ordinarily) from China Yet there are barbanan ships that strive to come here for trade for
the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians.
That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share
of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the
Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet
in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask,
where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly
forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood.
Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it
be passed on to the harm of other countries -- how much less to China! Of all that China
exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to peo
ple: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold:
all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to
foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get
along for a single day without them. If China cuts off these benefits with no sympathy for
those who are to suffer, then what can the barbarians rely upon to keep themselves alive?
Moreover the woolens, camlets, and longells i.e., textiles of foreign countries cannot
be woven unless they obtain Chinese silk. If China, again, cuts off this beneficial
export, what profit can the barbarians expect to make? As for other foodstuffs, beginning
with candy, ginger, cinnamon, and so forth, and articles for use, beginning with silk,
satin, chinaware, and so on, all the things that must be had by foreign countries are
innumerable. On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used
as toys. We can take them or get along without them. Since they are not needed by China,
what difficulty would there be if we closed our the frontier and stopped the trade?
Nevertheless, our Celestial Court lets tea, silk, and other goods be shipped without limit
and circulated everywhere without begrudging it in the slightest. This is for no other
reason but to share the benefit with the people of the whole world. The goods from China
carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use, but also can be
divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell
opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling
products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?
Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England
and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler
would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable
ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you
yourself do not want. We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had
regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted
to carry contraband goods.
This indicates that the administrative orders of your
honorable rule have been originally strict and clear. Only because the trading ships
are numerous, heretofore perhaps they have not been examined with care. Now after this
communication has been dispatched and you have clearly understood the strictness of the
prohibitory laws of the Celestial Gourt, certainly you will not let your subjects dare
again to violate the law.
We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in
Ireland, and other places, originally no opium has been produced. Only in several
places of India under your control such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Benares, and
Malwa has opium been planted from hill to hill, and ponds have been opened for its
manufacture. For months and years work is continued in order to accumulate the poison. The
obnoxious odor ascends, irritating heaven and frightening the spirits. Indeed you, O King,
can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in
its stead the five grains. Anyone who dares again attempt to
plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This will really be a great,
benevolent government policy that will increase the common weal and get rid of evil. For
this, Heaven must support you and the spirits must bring you good fortune, prolonging your
old age and extending your descendants. All will depend on this act.
As for the barbarian merchants who come to China, their food and drink and habitation,
are all received by the gracious favor of our Celestial Court. Their accumulated wealth is
all benefit given with pleasure by our Celestial Court. They spend rather few days in
their own country but more time in Canton. To digest clearly the legal penalties as an
aid to instruction has been a valid principle in all ages. Suppose a man of another
country comes to England to trade, he still has to obey the English laws; how much more
should he obey in China the laws of the Celestial Dynasty?
Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall
receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. Now consider this:
if the barbarians do not bring opium, then how can the Chinese people resell it, and how
can they smoke it? The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into
a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? He who takes the life of even one person still has to atone for it with his own life; yet is the harm done by
opium limited to the taking of one life only? Therefore in the new regulations, in regard
to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or
strangulation. This is what is called getting rid a harmful thing on behalf of mankind.
Moreover we have found that in the middle of the second month of this year (April 9)
Consul (Superintendent) Elliot of your nation, because the opium prohibition law was very
stern and severe, petitioned for an extension of the time limit. He requested an estension
of five months for India and its adjacent harbours and related territories, and ten months for England proper, after which they would act in conformity with the new regulations.
Now we, the commissioner and.others, have memorialized and have received the extraordinary
Celestial grace of His Majesty the Emperor, who has redoubled his consideration and
compassion. All those who from the period of the coming one year (from England) or six
months (from India) bring opium to China by mistake, but who voluntarily confess and
completely surrender their opium, shall be exempt from their punishment. After this limit
of time, if there are still those who bring opium to China then they will plainly have
committed a wilful violation and shall at once be executed according to law, with
absolutely no clemency or pardon. This may be called the height of kindness and the
perfection of justice.
Our Celestial Dynasty rules over and supervises the myriad states, and surely possesses unfathomable spiritual dignity. Yet the Emperor cannot bear to execute people without
having first tried to reform them by instruction. Therefore he especialiy promulgates
these fixed regulations. The barbarian merchants of your country, if they wish to do
business for a prolonged period, are required to obey our statues respectfully and to cut
off permanently the source of opium. They must by no means try to test the
effectiveness of the law with their lives. May you, O King, check your wicked and sift
your wicked people
before they come to China, in order to guarantee the peace of your nation, to show
further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness, and to let the two countries
enjoy together the blessings of peace How fortunate, how fortunate indeed! After receiving
this dispatch will you immediately give us a prompt reply regarding the details and
circumstances of your cutting off the opium traffic. Be sure not to put this off. The
above is what has to be communicated.
From Ssuyu Teng and John Fairbank, China's Response to the West,
(Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), repr. in Mark A. Kishlansky, ed., Sources
of World History, Volume II, (New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1995), pp. 266-69
I am positive that this text contains OCR errors. If someone with access to the source can point them out, I will be delighted to fix them.