Book review: An Irishman in China, by Zhao Changtian

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm

An Irishman in China
by Zhao Changtian (translated by Yang Shuhui and Yang Yunqin)
Better Link Press
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

In 19th-century China, there was no foreigner like Robert Hart. An Irishman, he served the Qing empire with devotion for 45 years, 40 of them as inspector-general of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. Three days after his death in September 1911, the emperor conferred on him the title of "Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent", the highest honour that he could give to a foreigner.

Hart had access to the most senior people in China, including the Empress Dowager and Prince Gong, the emperor's brother.

Fluent in Mandarin, Hart served the emperor and showed an empathy and understanding of the country rare among foreigners, most of whom despised the nation and its people. During and after the Boxer Rebellion, he wrote long articles explaining and defending the Boxers. When they were published in the West, they caused uproar.

Such a person is indeed worthy of a biography.

Zhao Changtian was an award-winning Chinese novelist who died in March 2013, aged 66. Of the two translators, Yang Shuhui is a professor of Chinese in Maine, while Yang Yunqin is a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations.

Zhao's book is excellent in describing Hart's complicated private life and his unique role as a mediator between China and the western powers at key moments in the 19th century. A British subject working for the Chinese emperor, he had the trust of both sides and the language and personal skills needed for such a difficult assignment.

In 1885, he brokered a peace agreement between France and China to end a war between them over control of north Vietnam. Throughout his career, he mediated between China and Britain, the most powerful colonial power.

In 1885, the Foreign Office appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary in Beijing, its most senior diplomatic post in China. He accepted it initially but two months later changed his mind. He could not leave the work he had built up over so many years at the customs.

It was one of the most important departments of the Chinese government. Two decades after its foundation in 1854, it was providing one-third of the national revenue. Senior posts were largely filled by foreigners, mainly British, on high salaries. It was renowned for its efficiency and lack of corruption.

Hart worked a 12-hour day, including Sundays. His recreations were reading, playing a violin and running a band. He lived in a spacious house in the Legation quarter of Beijing, with a compound and a large garden. The fittings and furniture were all British.

For most of the time, he lived there alone, with his servants. His wife, Hessie Bredon, from a similar background in Northern Ireland, left Beijing in 1876 with their three children after 10 years of marriage. She could not endure the harsh, dry winter and the spring dust storms - and perhaps her husband's Spartan life and dedication to his work. After her departure, Hart was celibate for more than 30 years.

His family life was not so successful. In his early years in China, he lived with Ayao, the daughter of a Ningbo boatman. They had a passionate relationship; she bore him two boys and a girl.

Before his marriage, he took the three children to England and placed them with a foster family. He provided for their board and education but never wrote them a single letter, for fear of leaving a paper trail. He gave Ayao a large payment to end the relationship.

The book does not describe Hart's education and life before he came to China nor the workings of the department he created. Those are the only weaknesses of an excellent book.