In the past, a posting in Guangdong for a well paid government job was not all it seemed…
Being an official in the Pearl River Delta during the 19th century was a mixed blessing. It had a reputation as a tough posting. Far away from the capital, near to major trading centers, it was a place where lawlessness and corruption were the only things thicker in the air than the mosquitos. On the other hand, it could also be a lucrative rung on the official ladder, it was, after all, far away from the capital and near the major trading centers.
From the 18th century until the end of the imperial era in 1912, the most powerful official in the region was the Governor General of Liangguang. Officially, the title was “Governor-General, Commander and Quartermaster, Supervisor of Waterways, and Inspector General of the two Guangs (Guangdong and Guangxi) and surrounding areas, Master of his Domain, Mother of Dragons, and Chief Baijiu Swiller.” Ok, so I made the last three up, but you get the point.
One of the earliest in the post was Fuk’anggan, a Manchu official who lived in Guangzhou from 1789-1793. Fuk’anggan was famous as a military strategist, but as an official in Guangzhou, Fuk’anggan developed a reputation for extravagance and corruption. As the sole port open to trade with the Europeans, there were numerous ways for an official of loose morals to become ridiculously rich and Fuk’anggan took advantage of most of them.
So lavish was his corruption, and so bold was Fuk’anggan in seeking out new sources of wealth, that it was rumored he was the bastard son of the Qianlong Emperor. How else to explain his charmed life and continued breathing?
The most famous person in the post had one of the shortest tenures. “Commissioner” Lin Zexu, whose firm stand against the opium trade in Guangzhou led to war with Great Britain. During his eventful eight months in office from January to October 1840, Lin ordered the seizure and destruction of all the foreign stocks of opium, which was destroyed in what is now Dongguan, in Humen to be precise.
The foreign traders agreed, but not before signing the opium over to the British Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliott. So when Lin and his men destroyed the drugs, they weren’t just burning any old pile of opium… it was the crown’s opium. Destruction of royal property meant compensation must be paid. When this was not forthcoming, parliament declared war and sent troops and gun boats to the Chinese coast to preserve Queen Victoria’s good name as the world’s biggest drug dealer. The emperor was unamused and blamed Lin for the whole debacle, exiling him and his family to the remotest regions of Xinjiang.
Lin’s replacement didn’t fare much better. The Manchu official Kišan, forced to negotiate with the British, was given a suspended death sentence when the emperor learned that he had given up the island of Hong Kong as part of a proposed peace settlement. Ironically, his British counterpart was also reprimanded for not getting more than just Hong Kong and the war continued for another year.
So when Lin and his men destroyed the drugs, they weren’t just burning any old pile of opium…it was the crown’s opium.
A decade after the war finally ended, yet another Governor-General would find himself on the wrong end of British guns. After the first opium war, foreign traders had been given the right to reside inside the city of Guangzhou rather than being restricted to the riverside wharfs. But the governor-general at the time, Ye Mingchen, refused to allow any foreigner to set foot within the city walls.
Matters came to a head in 1856. Ye’s troops boarded a ship off the coast of Guangdong. The ship’s captain and crew were Chinese, but flew the Union Jack and had a lapsed Hong Kong registry. British officials seized the moment and demanded compensation knowing Ye was more likely to swim naked across the Pearl River than pay a single penny to the British. True to form, British officials backed up their request by ordering a naval barrage against Guangzhou, specifically targeting Ye’s office and residence.
When the gates of Guangzhou fell in 1858, British troops searched the city for Ye, and found him trying to escape by climbing over a wall. Unfortunately, Ye’s famously squat and rotund figure made such an escape impossible. He was tied up by British soldiers and then shipped off as a prisoner of war to Calcutta, where he died in 1859.
The governors general in this era were always in a tough spot. The people of Guangdong wanted them to take a firm stand against aggressive foreign powers. If they were seen as being too soft on the foreigners, they could face sanction from the court or, worse, rebellion from the masses. But a too principled stand too led to armed intervention from foreign powers. The emperor was then likely to blame the governor general for starting the war, and would either sacrifice him to placate the foreign troops, or to use him as a scapegoat for the failure of the court to deal with the foreign threat.
No wonder so few people wanted the job.
Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinologist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio