Archive for October 28th, 2011

A link to Commissioner Lin

October 28, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



The best thing about book readings is that they sometimes lead to meetings with people one would never encounter otherwise.

Last night I was reading from River of Smoke at the Greenlight bookstore which is a five-minute walk from my house in Brooklyn (only a couple of years old, the Greenlight has rapidly established itself as one of the leading bookshops in New York; it is now widely regarded as a model for a new generation of community-oriented bookshops).

During the signing a young woman introduced herself as Celia Liu





and said she was a direct descendant, through her mother and her father, of Lin Zexu, the famous Commissioner Lin – the incorruptible mandarin whose determined opposition to the drug trade led to the first Opium War. In this critical episode in Asian history, Commissioner Lin was one of the very few who acquitted himself with honour and courage. He was also a remarkable thinker and writer: his letter to Queen Victoria (quoted in River of Smoke ) is one of the most remarkable documents of the 19th century.

Commissioner Lin’s decision to destroy the opium he had seized from the foreign merchants of Canton was a turning point in the events leading up to war. The quantity of confiscated opium was so large that the process took several weeks. The site was near Humen, at the mouth of the Pearl River – a museum now marks the spot. The area was then known to foreigners as the ‘Bogue’ or ‘Bocca Tigris’ (‘mouth of the tiger’).

This is how it is described in River of Smoke:

‘The scene is set in a small village, not far from the Bogue. It is a flat, marshy place, intercut with creeks and surrounded by rice paddies. A field has been marked out, and trenches have been dug; the crates are stacked nearby as they arrive. The Commissioner is determined to prevent pilferage so the perimeter is guarded day and night and everyone who works there is searched, before they enter and when they leave.

‘Day by day the stocks of opium accumulate: the crates rise by the hundred until they reach a total of twenty thousand three hundred and eighty-one. Their combined value is almost beyond human imagining … to buy it you would need hundreds of tons of silver! … And all this opium was intended for sale in a single season: does it not make the mind boggle?).

‘But there it is, this great haul of opium and the day comes for Commissioner Lin to set in motion the process of its destruction. And on the eve of the ceremony what does the Commissioner elect to do? Why, he sits down to write a poem – it is a prayer addressed to the God of the Sea asking that all the animals of the water be protected from the poison that will soon be pouring in.’

To me, nothing says more about Commissioner Lin than the fact that at this critical juncture he paused to think about the creatures of the sea. He clearly envisioned continuities between forms of life in a manner that would be almost unimaginable in a government official today, in China or elsewhere.

I’ve read every translation I could find of Commissioner Lin’s journals, letters and edicts and it is no accident that his voice echoes powerfully through River of Smoke. But it had never occurred to me that the book might one day lead to a meeting with one of the Commissioner’s descendants, and that too in Brooklyn!

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