Lin Zexu Just Say No! The Steampunk Opium Wars

Lin Zexu and the Narrator in The Steampunk Opium Wars, 2012. Hugo Trebels and Anna Chen
Hugo Trebels as Lin Zexu and Anna Chen as the Narrator in The Steampunk Opium Wars

Extracts: Lin Zexu – Just Say No!

Anna Chen wrote and produced The Steampunk Opium Wars which premiered at the Royal National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, 16 February 2012. Here are some extracts from the show …

Britain loves its Chinoiserie

THE NARRATOR – ANNA: It was a dark and stormy night in the history of the British Empire.
Ever since Queen Elizabeth I had granted a charter to the East India Company to trade with the East it had been a bumpy ride.
Sure, things looked pretty cool for a while when we liked the silks,
when we liked the porcelain with the pretty willow-pattern,
when we built pagodas in Kew Gardens in admiration
when we liked the taste of the spices and taste of the tea.
And we liked the Chinese people (English applaud) and the way they grew the tea.
And it was all smiles and chinoiserie.
But it didn’t come for free.
We ate the spices, and we drank the tea.
We drank the tea and we drank the tea in the pretty porcelain chinoiserie.
Why not? It was nice. And so was the spice.
But it came at a price.
We drank the tea and we paid for the tea
And we paid so much
It drained the treasury
All that gold bullion nearly gone.
Something had to be done.


Her Majesty’s government heeded the call
Scratched their heads, polished their balls
And looked for something covetable to trade
A barter instead of a straight purchase had to be made.
But they didn’t want our clockwork toys
Our cheap alloys
Nixed our chunky ceramics
Found our wool too coarse compared with their silk
Couldn’t drink milk, so dairy was out.
What’s a government to do?

Parliament needs a silver service

BRITISH GOVERNMENT (LORD PALMERSTON): Much more of this and we’re broke. We have nothing the Chinese want and the balance of trade is alarming. Anyone have any bright ideas?

ANNA: Stand up the East India Company.

SIR JM: We can grow the tea ourselves. Why pay the Chinese when we can nick the seeds and cultivate it in our back garden. Otherwise known as India.

LORD P: Yes, yes, that’s good. But we need something right now. What else?

SIR JARDINE MATHESON: Well, I’m not sure you’ll like this …

LORD P: No, go on. We’re desperate.

SIR JM: Me and the boys in the East India Company have been gardening. Poppies to be precise.

LORD P: I want ideas and you bring me flowers?

SIR JM: Didn’t you like the roses I sent you? We haven’t been growing just any old flowers.
Poppies. Opium, to be exact. It’s a bit like crack. Only prettier. And bloody cheap.
We’ve been slipping it over the sea into China to pay for the tea and it’s working a treat.
(Rubs hands with glee)

ANNA: The British East India Company: never knowingly undersold.
Since 1757, the East India Company had been granted the monopoly
on growing opium poppies in Bengal. 
Used in medicine to keep you healthy, 
Smoked for pleasure by the wealthy,
Opium wasn’t very common at all.
With British mass production that all changed.
It widened the range of the customer base
It turned an aristocratic vice into a mass addiction
And targeted an entire race with a deadly affliction.
What sparked it?
There aren’t many commodities that create their own market.

SIR JM: POEM The Case for Free Trade (by Paul Anderson) persuading Lord P to send in navy and use military force to make China accept opium.

LORD P: (To Sir JM) Thank you so much for the assistance and information so handsomely afforded us, Sir Jardine-Matheson, leading to so satisfactory an outcome.
It will form an epoch in the progress of the civilisation of the human races. Not to mention the most important advantages to the commercial interests of England. 

ANNA: Sir Jardine-Matheson, aren’t you and the East India Company just drug dealers?

SIR JM: Madam, this is business. The opium trade is the safest and most gentlemanlike speculation I am aware of.

ANNA: So not tacky, then? A little bit squalid?

SIR JM: “Squalid”? Opium is the world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the 19th century. It will make me an MP. It will make me a man of property. It will buy me an island in the Hebrides. It will allow me to do as I please.

ANNA: So, let me get this straight: 
to pay for our silks and tea, 
you’re selling opium to the Chinese 
who don’t want it because opium addiction is a terrible disease.

SIR JM: This “disease” is the hub of British trade in the East. It will even gain us a Hong Kong lease. As much as we can seize,

ANNA: The East India Company grew the opium, it processed the opium, it took the opium to depot hulks permanently moored offshore where it was sold to Chinese smugglers who then distributed it inside China.
With the end of the East India Company’s trade monopoly in 1834, all the narco-capitalists fought for a piece of the action. The East India Company’s role morphed into the biggest narco-capitalists yet: Jardine Matheson, still around today.
Jardine Matheson rapidly expanded their opium interests and forced open the Chinese market. From fifteen tons in 1730, opium trafficking expanded two hundred-fold to two thousand five hundred tons in 1838. 
The haemmorhaging of silver from the Chinese coffers to pay for their drug habit was unsustainable. The Qing Imperial government had had enough. It decided to enforce the ban on opium and sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to the port of Canton stop it. 

Governor Lin Zexu just says no!

LIN ZEXU: Freeze. You need to cease.
What are you, a herd of beasts?
No, no no, kids. Just say no!

ANNA: Governor General Lin Zexu. What are you doing here?

LIN: The Emperor sent me. Looks like I got here just in time.
(To audience) What have they been giving you. I’ve seen those foil wraps. What’s in it?
(Grabs Queen Vic’s East India Company carrier-bag and looks in it)

QUEEN VICTORIA: It’s only chocolate.

LIN: “Only chocolate”? Yeah, pull the other one. (Undoes a wrap and tastes a bit.) Ooh, it is. Yes, but laced with what, I wonder. Bloody East India Company. Nothing but a lot of drug-running bastards.

Neil Hornick Captain Ironside Steampunk Opium Wars Royal National Maritime Museum 2012
Captain Ironside (Neil Hornick) hands out opium wraps to the audience at The Steampunk Opium Wars, Royal National Maritime Museum in Greenwich 2012

SIR JM: Harrumph! East India Company, fine fellows. Wonderful horticulturalists. Green fingers. Very good at growing things.

ANNA: (To Lin) So what have you got against an exciting money-making venture? It’s only satisfying a market.

LIN ZEXU: Only satisfying a market? What idiot says that?

ANNA: Well, that’s what they say
(Lord P & Sir JM) — and it says so here.
(Waves Lovell’s The Opium Wars) You lot were already junkies, weren’t you?

LIN ZEXU: (Snatches book and discards it) Do you believe EVERYTHING you read? You were only only a junkie if you had more money that sense. People who had to work all day in the paddy fields couldn’t afford it.
It wasn’t until HE (indicates Sir Jardine-Matheson) and his lot and the East India Company started growing the cheap stuff by the ton in Bengal that it started to be anything more than a posh vice. Suddenly, every Chen, Wong and Chan were doing it.

ANNA: By 1839 British merchants were smuggling one thousand four hundred tons of opium into China.

SIR JM: Steady on, chappie. It’s only a little bit of fun. You can’t stop progress, you know. The march of history.


Lin Zexu sprinkles it with lime and throws it in the sea

LIN ZEXU: It was illegal.
It was evil.
It was immoral.
It was Sodom and Gommorral.
(Appealing to audience)
Use your head,
Use your smarts.
Would you trust these guys?
Would you buy a used cart?
How can you justify
A junkie-making enterprise
The object of the exercise
Is making them rich.
They sound like fakers
They look like undertakers
They won’t be happy
Til we’re dying in a ditch
Treating us like mugs
Selling us their drugs
Costing us a fortune
Till we haven’t got a stitch

LORD PALMERSTON: (Mocking) So, there you have it — the voice of authority

LIN: You think it’s fun? Smacked-up off your trolley?
Spending all your lolly on dreaming with the dead?
It’s OK you lot spicing up your life
The poppy costs a packet and it messes up your head
Wait til you’ve been on opium for a while.
It feels like hours but it’s longer by a mile
Days and weeks pass. And it bloody-well shows.
Give it a month, you’ll lose your glow
Lose your glamour, lose your zing
Your skin all puckers. You start to ming
Your teeth fall out
And then your hair
No-one will look at you,
They wouldn’t bloody dare

ALL: No-one will look at you,
They wouldn’t bloody dare.

QUEEN VICTORIA: It never did me any harm.

LIN ZEXU: Yeah, not much of an advert, are you, Queenie?
What’s the time?
Eighteen thirty-nine.

LORD P, SIR JM, QUEEN VIC: China is in a bit of a decline

LIN: Yes, I know we’re past our prime
You’re not exactly giving us a chance to shine
That’s no excuse
For all this abuse
Hand me your drugs
I want your poppy juice.
Deliver all your drugs to me
I’ll sprinkle it with lime
And throw it in the sea.

ALL: He’ll sprinkle it with lime
And throw it in the sea.

ANNA: In 1839 Lin Zexu told the dealers in Canton they had to hand over their opium, all 20,000 chest of it. One and a half tons delivered to him on the dockside. Everyone kicked up.

SIR JM: Do you know how much that costs?

LORD P: Now we’ll have to compensate the merchants.

QUEEN VIC: You’re getting my laudanum over my cold dead body.

LIN: Your Majesty has not before been thus officially notified, and you may plead ignorance of the severity of our laws, but I now give my assurance that we mean to cut this harmful drug forever.
Say no, no, kids, just say no
I’m getting stroppy with the poppy, just say no
Lordy, lordy, laudanum
Get your beauty sleep, drink lots of water.
Her Majesty won’t be amused until we’ve fought her
Tea Out, Opium In
Getting stroppy with the poppy Lordy, lordy, laudinum

QUEEN VICTORIA: Mr Lin, tell the Emperor that it is a bounty of nature, a gift from God, a medicine which, if taken in tincture form, is most efficiaceous in ailments of the womb. We do not smoke it like the barbarians.

ANNA: Actually, it had been the Western sailors who taught the Chinese how to smoke opium.

Britain begins the Opium Wars

LORD P: POEM After Kipling: Apology for the First Opium War by John Crow Constable

SIR JM: (To Lord P) Game’s up. The opium trade is now so very important in England that we cannot be too cautious in keeping as quiet and out of the public eye as possible.

LORD P: I fear you are correct. (Beckons Queen Vic) C’mon, Ma’am, you too. Let’s find you a nice place to lie down. Men, load the cannon! We’re off to war.

(The men exit followed by Queen Victoria.)

LIN ZEXU: Hey, Your Majesty. Wait, I haven’t finished. Just a minute. (Follows her off)

William Gladstone and Richard Cobden speak up

(In Parliament, a vigorous debate took place, William Gladstone and the Radical Richard Cobden opposing the Opium Wars.)


MR COBSTONE: A war more unjust in its origins in its origins, a war more calculated in its origins, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country in disgrace, I do not know and have not read of. The flag is being hoisted to protect a notorious contraband traffic. It is the Chinese, supposedly the pagans and semi-barbarians, who are righteous in this instance whilst we, the enlightened and civilised Christians, are pursuing objects at variance with both justice and religion.

ANNA: In late 1839, Her Majesty’s government dispatched the troops and the navy. 
After a sea voyage halfway across the world, the fleet of British warships finally arrived in the spring of 1840. 
Quite a long way to go for a ruck.
In the defining example of gunboat diplomacy,
they sent the warships up the Yangtse,
a painful condition … which cut off the Qing Empire’s tax income.
They bombarded the coastal towns with heavy artillery resulting in a devastating loss of Chinese life.

(MUSIC: Atmos intro)

LX: Fade down lights, except for Captain Ironside

CAPTAIN IRONSIDE: When we captured the port of Jinhai, we fired 15 broadsides in a few minutes into the defenceless town. The crashing of timber, falling houses and groans of men resounded from the shore … a more complete pillage could not be conceived. The rape and plunder only ceased when there was nothing more to take or destroy. Two thousand Chinese died that day.
Our losses? Three men in all. The yellow men had no chance against our superior weaponry. 
We had the Wellesley with 74 guns; the Conway and the Alligator, each with 28 guns; the Cruiser and the Algerine with 36 guns between ‘em, and a dozen more vessels all armed and highly dangerous.

D’ye know what that adds up to?
Victory for us. Defeat for our enemy.
But do you know something else? The buggers would not give up. They resorted to dirty tactics. Native tricks such as the ambush.  However, our men had the fortitude of lions, not to mention state of the art technology.
Mind you, we nearly suffered a crushing defeat at Sanyuanli,
just north of Canton, from the massed peasant militia.
It was the timidity and cowardice of the Qing army that saved our bacon.
As a result of this and our brave endeavours, British opium ships began to gather once more.

The Steampunk Opium Wars: belly of the beast

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