During the Daoguang period of the Qing Dynasty, foreign businesspeople brought massive amounts of opium into China, leading the people to take on incorrect social values and ruin their health. In the eighteenth year of Daoguang (1838), the imperial court appointed Lin Zexu as the imperial minister and sent him to Guangzhou to ban opium.
In those days, it was typical for people to offer bribes to get decisions in their favor. If Lin Zexu wanted to make a fortune, it would be easy for the family to live in extreme wealth. However, the state of the country and the lives of the people concerned Lin greatly. Knowing that opium caused wide-reaching harm to the people, Lin rejected the merchants’ bribes and destroyed nearly 20,000 boxes of opium in Humen.
In the following year, the British army threatened the Qing court. To seek reconciliation, the Qing court dismissed Lin from his post and sent him into exile. Lin suffered for five years in exile.
What exactly did Lin do to earn his exile? He refused to accept bribes and strictly banned opium. Before going into exile, he wrote a poem, saying: “As long as it is good for the country, even if I sacrifice my life, I am also willing to do it and will never dodge the harm that I may suffer.”
Regarding this matter, Nie Yuntai recorded in his book The Law of Preserving Wealth that after Lin’s death, even though the Lin family had no savings, the family remained stable and did not go into decline. Many of his decedents succeeded in their studies, and some passed the imperial examinations at provincial and national levels. In the period of the Republic of China, the Lin family was still made up of a lot of intellectuals. Lin refused to make a fortune for himself, but his descendants became prosperous and noble.
A fortune made while the country is in danger is quickly lost
Nie also recorded that there were three wealthy businessmen in Guangdong who were the heads of the Wu family, the Pan family, and the Kong family. They took advantage of the Opium Wars to make a fortune and earned tens of millions of ounces of silver. The wealth of the three families was almost as much as that of the entire country. They lived a luxurious life, dressing in fine clothes, driving expensive cars, and dining well.
The families of Wu, Pan, and Kong collected the most famous ancient calligraphy and paintings. Decades later, none of these three families’ descendants were talented, and they had all lost everything.
There is a saying in the Great Learning, a chapter in the Book of Rites: “A person who has obtained money by means that violates morality and justice and improper means will also lose it in the same way.”
Compared to Lin, the three wealthy businessmen in Guangdong must have seemed so smart and capable at the time, since they made a fortune. In comparison, Lin was “stupid.” When offered a bribe of silver, he would not take it even if he had the opportunity. He would rather be dismissed from his job and go into exile to hold on to his virtue. Over time, when we look back on these families, their descendants have undergone tremendous changes.
During the same time period, a wealthy Shanghai businessman named Chen was known as the king of land investment. The Chen family’s wealth was as many as 50 million ounces of silver, and his two sons received 25 million each. In 1925, Nie visited the Chen family and saw that the Chen family’s house was luxurious. Four walls of the guest room were all equipped with glass shelves displaying ancient bronze tripods and antiques over 3,000 years old.
In fact, almost half of the famous bronzes in China were in the Chen family home. You cannot imagine the degree of luxury. However, just seven years later, the land price in Shanghai suddenly fell, and the Chen family failed in their investments and were bankrupt. Almost all the Chen family assets, including antique treasures, property, and land, were confiscated and sold by the bank.
Doing good and accumulating virtue is the most far-reaching plan to leave fortunes for future generations. Comparing Lin Zexu and Chen’s subsequent changes in their families based on their mentality shows us that deliberately accumulating money to keep it for future generations will be a disaster.
Read Part 1 here.
Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Helen