Robert Hart, a great man for the 19th and early 20th century.
Since China; the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province; Tibet; the Dalai Lama, and the 2008 Olympics are in the news so much these days, it is only fitting to visit one of the great men of the 19th century. I believe it is safe to say that there is no one in the position of influence that Robert Hart held for so many decades on the earth today. What he accomplished as a peacemaker for not only China but for other countries earned him many honors during his lifetime. The ‘Foreword’ written by my wife and the ‘Preface’ are about Robert Hart, a man forgotten today but honored by a queen, an empress and more than a dozen other countries including the Vatican.
My Splendid Concubine is the story of his early years in China.
by Anchee Min
He was the father of China’s modernization. He was the only foreigner the Emperor trusted. As Inspector General for Chinese Maritime Customs, Sir Robert Hart was responsible for generating one third the national revenue crucial to the Ch’ing Dynasty’s survival. I was surprised to discover that today few know that Sir Robert Hart was once a household name in China.
Like the Statue of Liberty in New York City’s harbor, there was once a bronze life-size sculpture of Robert Hart standing by the Huang-pu Bund at the mouth of the Yangtze River in Shanghai, China. The sculpture was commissioned by the Emperor of China and was erected in 1910. It stood for twenty-seven years until the Japanese knocked it down during the invasion in 1937.
Today where Robert Hart’s bronze statue once stood is a figure of Mao’s General Chen Yi. But the old people of Shanghai still tell their young, as my father told me, about the statue of Robert Hart. ‘He was a great man, a true friend of China.’ Furthermore, people remember that there were streets in Shanghai and Beijing (Peking) named after Robert Hart before the Cultural Revolution like ‘Hart Boulevard’.
There were two famous stories about Robert Hart that I knew. One was about his legendary ‘refusal’ of the Emperor’s invitation that he be the ‘Commander in Chief of China’s Army’ in 1887. Hart believed that there would be a ‘conflict of interest’ since he was British. He felt that he could best serve China by staying the Inspector General of Chinese Customs. He wanted to stay ‘behind the scenes’ and to teach China to be a ‘better fisherman’ instead of handing her ‘fish’. Saying ‘no’ to the Emperor’s offer made Robert Hart a giant moral hero, and that was beyond the comprehension of the corrupt imperial royals.
The other story was about Robert Hart’s Chinese concubine, Ayaou. She was a boat-girl by background. During the love affair between Hart and Ayaou, she gave birth to three children. One can hardly imagine the passion, torment and struggle that must have taken place between these two strong-willed individuals during China’s most difficult times.
By learning about Robert Hart, I believe that a Westerner could gain a key to understanding China and the Chinese culture. I introduced Robert Hart to Lloyd while we were still dating. My reason was a selfish one—I wanted Lloyd to learn from a ‘Master’.
It turned out to be the best gift I could give Lloyd. The more he learned about Robert Hart, the more he believed that it was his mission to make Hart’s story known. My Splendid Concubine was a work of nearly nine years of his labor.
I am grateful for what Lloyd has done, especially when building bridges of communication between China and the West is crucial to our survival.
Author of: Red Azalea (Pantheon); Katherine (Berkley Trade); Wild Ginger (Mariner Books); Becoming Madam Mao (Mariner Books); Empress Orchid (Mariner Books), and The Last Empress (Mariner Books)
by Lloyd Lofthouse
Robert Hart (1835-1911), the ‘Godfather of China's modernism’, was the Inspector General of China's Customs Service. He was also the architect behind China's railroads, postal network, telegraph systems and schools. No Westerner, including Marco Polo, has ever achieved Hart's status and level of power in China.
How did this young Englishman achieve success in an alien empire?
What would become an academic and then personal treasure hunt started with Robert Hart's diaries written over his fifty-four years in China, some of which had been published by the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard. However, a few of these diaries covering a critical period of Robert’s early years in China were missing, as Hart had burned them shortly before his death. Enough information survived to reveal that he had an affair for about a decade with a Chinese concubine named Ayaou, who bore him three children.
My wife, who at the time was researching and writing her next novel for her publisher, said there was an underground archive in Shanghai where old books, manuscripts and documents of all sorts had been stored for decades since the Cultural Revolution. The problem was that the public wasn’t allowed access. We went to China believing that if we kept trying we might be able to ‘pry’ the door open, and eventually a favor was granted for a price. At six one morning, the gatekeeper led us to a Russian military style brown building that looked like it was in the middle of being renovated.
Cautiously we went down a crumbling concrete stairway into the underground and found what had once been a bomb shelter during the Cultural Revolution. A series of long damp tunnels led to more rooms. The pungent odor of insecticide choked us the moment we passed through the vault-like door at the bottom.
Signs everywhere warned us: "Xian-ren-muo-ru"—"No Visitors—Officials Only." Inside were makeshift shelves crowded with dust covered chests. Although searching for records that dealt with the topic of my wife’s book, we also searched for Imperial records that detailed Robert Hart's time in China. We wanted information on his early years while still an interpreter for the British Consulate in Ningpo—his years with Ayaou.
We weren't allowed to take anything out, so we spent day after day in the claustrophobic, chemical laden, damp and dim archive that felt more like a tomb. In time, we stumbled onto a stack of boxes sealed with white banner shaped paper stamped with red ink that said Red Guard Headquarters. These boxes were filled with affidavits about the 'British Imperialist Robert Hart's intimate corrupted life' gathered from the provinces and cities including Canton, Zhejing, and Ningpo.
The Red Guards had put Robert Hart on trial more than fifty years after his death to prove that what he had done for China was evil. People who knew of the Inspector General were ‘ordered’ to confess whatever stories or rumors had been passed to them.
The results were written on crumbling, aging documents in these boxes. What we discovered was a story that speaks to the heart. To do it justice it was decided to use a fictional narrative format and write a historical novel that would blend psychology, sociology, politics and art with the dynamic process of history and weave it into one seamless tapestry while attempting to stay as true as possible to the events of the time.
Note: Today, I launch the limited serialization of
My Splendid Concubine. Every five days I will post a chapter or a few pages from a chapter in the short story section of my Author’s Den. Concubine runs twenty-seven chapters. The serialization will cover twelve of those chapters. After chapter twelve is posted, anyone interested in reading the rest of My Splendid Concubine may buy it as an E-book for as low as $4.80 or from Amazon.com, Book-a-Million.com, or Barnes&Noble.com (B&N.com).