The Qing dynasty's Qianlong emperor at the close of the 18th century wrote to King George III after snubbing a British diplomatic mission: "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures. Therefore, O King, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country."
Needless to say, the British saw things in a different light, not least because the growing trade they were carrying out with China was resulting in an alarming flow of silver out of British coffers and into the Qing court's pockets.
The British solution for the trade imbalance at the beginning of the 19th century was simple: start selling opium to China. The strategy worked and its aftershocks can still be felt in Chinese apprehension toward the West in general and toward global trade in particular.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM
When the Daoguang emperor decided to take decisive action against opium in 1838 he called upon Lin Tse-hsu (林則徐), a scholar-bureaucrat who opted for a classically Confucian combination of moral persuasion and forceful crackdowns to enforce the ban on opium that was already in place but flagrantly ignored by both foreign and local traders. His methods failed spectacularly, but he nonetheless became a potent symbol to explain China's bitter experience of interaction with Western powers in the 19th century.
In a first for a local museum, the National Museum of History is holding an exhibition on Lin's life and work -- and on the opium trade he tried to stem.
Unfortunately, the show is unbearably static, featuring an assortment of opium pipes and utensils and old photos of addicts in various states of blissful repose. There is an abundance of dull wall text, and to be fair, it steers clear of the standard line on Lin in China that he was a heroic patriot who became victim of implacable and dastardly foreigners, but it's entirely in Chinese. What little English information is provided in the exhibition pamphlet is poorly translated and absent of detail. Perhaps someone forgot to inform the National Museum of History that this is "Visit Taiwan Year."
On the bright side, the facts, as presented in the exhibition, portray Lin as an upright servant of the Qing court, which isn't disputed. They also highlight the fact that his final tactic of seizing and then destroying all the opium within his jurisdiction invited swift retaliation from the British in the form of the First Opium War that ended in 1842 with a massive reparations bill and the loss of Hong Kong. But that's where the history lesson ends.
The exhibition's greatest flaw is in glossing over Lin's central role in setting off a chain of events that permanently changed China. The Opium War announced China's military weakness to European powers, and these arrived in quick succession, trying to instigate wars that they could quickly win to then leverage concessions out of the Qing court.
Whether Lin could have averted a war with more deft diplomacy, or at the very least postponed foreign incursions by a few decades, are questions scholars have considered ever since Lin found himself reassigned to Xinjiang, a posting that amounted to the Qing government's worst possible demotion.
It's too bad that an exhibition dedicated to the man so studiously avoided exploring these and other critical questions.
What: Lin Tse-Hsu and the New Opium War
When: Now until July 11
Where: 29 Nanhai Road, Taipei (
Tickets: NT$20 for adults, NT$10 for students
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