The Legalization of Opium: The Case against . . .

Memorial against the Admission of Opium to China

In July 1836 Capt. Elliot, British representative at Canton, reported to the government at London that an imperial decision was soon to be expected legalizing opium. This was followed up by forwarding to the Foreign Office copies of several memorials of Chinese officials recommending legalization. There had been a virtual stoppage of the opium trade at Canton owing to the stepped-up efforts of officials while the emperor deliberated on the problem. Nevertheless, great hope had been placed in the possibility of the Imperial Court 'throwing in the towel' and, through strict regulation, enforce barter transactions in commodity exchanges [i.e., exports of tea, etc. to be equated against imports of opium] and thus prevent the drain of silver from China. Perhaps Elliot had put too much faith in the influence of local Canton officials who memorialized in favor of legalization, for all hopes were dashed when the emperor took the high moral ground in his edict of July 14, 1837 calling for the punishm ent of opium dealers "without the slightest indulgence," exactly the recommendation offered in the following memorial of Grand Council member Choo-tsun.
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October, 1836

Choo-tsun, member of the Council and of the Board of Rites . . presents the following memorial, wherein he suggests the propriety of increasing the severity of certain prohibitory enactments, with a view to maintain the dignity of the laws, and to r emove a great evil from among the people. . . .

I would humbly point out, that wherever an evil exists, it should be at once removed; and that the laws should never be suffered to fall into desuetude. . . In regard to opium, special enactments were passed for the prohibition of its use in the first y ear of (the reign of) Chia-ch'ing (1796); and since then, memorials presented at various successive periods, have given rise to additional prohibitions, all which have been inserted in the code and the several tariffs. The laws, then, relating thereto are not wanting in severity; but there are those in office who, for want of energy, fail to carry them into execution.' Hence the people's minds gradually become callous; and base desires springing up among them, increase day by day and month by month, till their rank luxuriance has spread over the whole empire. These noisome weeds having been long neglected, it has become impossible to eradicate. And those to whom this duty is entrusted are, as if hand-bound, wholly at a loss what to do. . . .

It is apparent, that, if the great officers in charge of the provinces do in truth show an example to their civil and military subordinates, and if these do in sincerity search for the drug, and faithfully seize it when found, apprehending the most crim inal, and inflicting upon them severe punishment . . will the people, however perverse and obstinate they may be, really continue fearless of the laws? No. The thing to be lamented is instability in maintaining the laws--the vigorous execution thereof be ing often and suddenly exchanged for indolent laxity.

. . . And though the law should sometimes be relaxed and become ineffectual, yet surely it should not on that account be abolished; any more than we would altogether cease to eat because of diseased stoppage of the throat. . . The laws that forbid the p eople to do wrong may be likened to the dykes which prevent the overflowing of water. If any one, then, urging that the dykes are very old, and therefore useless, should have them thrown down, what words could express the consequences of the impetuous ru sh and all-destroying overflow! Yet the provincials [i.e., local officials], when discussing the subject of opium, being perplexed and bewildered by it, think that a prohibition which does not utterly prohibit, is better than one which does not effectual ly prevent, the importation of the drug. Day and night I have meditated on this, and can in truth see no wisdom in the opinion.

. . . As to the proposition to give tea in exchange, and entirely to prohibit the exportation of foreign silver, I apprehend that, if the tea should not be found sufficient, money will still be given in exchange for the drug. Besides, if it is in our po wer to prevent the exportation of dollars, why not also to prevent the importation of opium? And if we can but prevent the importation of opium, the exportation of dollars will then cease of itself, and the two offences will both at once be stopped. Mor eover, is it not better, by continuing the old enactments, to find even a partial remedy for the evil, than by a change of the laws to increase the importation still further? As to levying a duty on opium, the thing sounds so awkwardly and reads so unbese emingly, that such a duty ought surely not to be levied. . . .

Those of your Majesty's advisers who compare the drug to the dried leaf of the tobacco plant are in error. The tobacco leaf does not destroy the human constitution. The profit too arising from the sale of tobacco is small, while that arising from opium is large. Besides, tobacco may be cultivated on bare and barren ground, while the poppy needs a rich and fertile soil. If all the rich and fertile ground be used for planting the poppy, and if the people, hoping for a large profit therefrom, madly engage in its cultivation, where will flax and the mulberry tree [for silkworm cultivation] be cultivated, or wheat and rye be planted?

. . . In introducing opium into this country, their (English) purpose has been to weaken and enfeeble the Central Empire. If not early aroused to a sense of our danger, we shall find ourselves, ere long, on the last step towards ruin. . . . But, reverent ly perusing the sacred instructions of your Majesty's all-wise progenitor [K'ang-hsi], I find the following remark by him dated (1717):--"There is cause for apprehension, lest, in centuries or millenniums to come, China may be endangered by collision wit h the various nations of the West, who come hither from beyond the seas." . . . And now, within a period of two centuries, we actually see the commencement of that danger which he apprehended. . . .

Besides, if the people be at liberty to smoke opium, how shall the officers, the scholars, and the military be prevented? . . . For the great majority of recruits are men of no character or respectability, and, if while they were among the common people they were smokers of opium, by what bands of law shall they be restrained when they become soldiers, after the habit has been already contracted, and has so taken hold of them that it is beyond their power to break it off? . . . And if the officers, the scholars, and the military, smoke the drug in the quiet of their own families, by what means is this to be discovered or prevented? . . . A father, in such a case, would no longer be able to reprove his son, an elder brother to restrain his junior, nor a master rule his own household. Will not this policy, then, be every way calculated to stir up strife? . . . From this I conclude, that to permit the people to deal in the drug and smoke it, at the same time that the officers, the scholars, and the milit ary, are to be prohibited the use of it, will be found to be fraught with difficulties. [Note: The memorial making the case for legalizing opium recommended that only the officials, scholars and officers be prohibited from using the drug].

. . . I feel it my duty to request that your Majesty's commands may be proclaimed to the Governors and Lieutenant-Governors of all the provinces, requiring them to direct the local officers to redouble their efforts for the enforcement of the existing pr ohibition against opium; and to impress on every one, in the plainest and strictest manner, that all who are already contaminated by the vile habit must return and become new men,--that if any continue to walk in their former courses, strangers to repenta nce and to reformation, they shall assuredly be subjected to the full penalty of the law, and shall not meet with the least indulgence,--and that on any found guilty of storing up or selling opium to the amount of 1,000 catties [i.e., 10 chests or about 1300 lbs.] or upwards, the most severe punishment shall be inflicted.

. . . Submitting to my Sovereign my feeble and obscure views, I prostrate implore your sacred Majesty to cast a glance on this my respectful memorial.

[Ref.: British Parliamentary Papers, 1840, Vol. XXXVI (223) Correspondence Relating to China, pp. 168-73]