There is almost no Chinese official upon whom I can rely. But the report of this foreigner is reliable… If we had 100 Harts, our affairs would run smoothly.
—Prince Gong, Director of the Tsungli Yamen
The prince headed the Yamen, forerunner of the Foreign Ministry, from 1861 to 1884 and 1894 until his death in 1898.
Sir Robert Hart served as the Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service of the Qing dynasty from 1863 until his death in 1911. No foreigner has ever had or will ever have the life he did in China. He provided the government with more than 20 per cent of its annual revenue, set up the Chinese Post Office, founded a system of lighthouses along the coast, bought British warships that were the foundation of the modern Chinese navy and negotiated a peace treaty to end the Sino-French war of 1884-85. He was a trusted confidant of government leaders who constantly sought his advice in how to deal with aggressive and meddling foreigners.
His finest hour came in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. With 1,300 other foreigners and 3,100 Chinese, he was trapped in the Legation Quarter of Beijing for 55 days, ready for death. After the siege, many called for partition of China or imposition of a new dynasty — but Hart argued that the fault for the rebellion lay with the foreigners.
His personal life was just as dramatic. He had a Chinese lady friend, Miss Ayaou, with whom he had three children. He sent them to be brought up by a foster family in London. Then he married an Irish lady from his home place; they also had three children. He did everything possible to prevent each family from knowing of or meeting the other.
Mark O'Neill uses a wide range of sources, in English and Chinese, to describe this fascinating and complex character in all his many colours.
About the Author:
Mark O’Neill was born in London and educated at New College, Oxford University. Mark has worked in Asia since 1978, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, China and Japan, for the BBC, Reuters, the South China Morning Post and other media. He has written seven books: Tzu Chi — Serving with Compassion; Frederick, the Life of My Missionary Grandfather in Manchuria; The Chinese Labour Corps; From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army; The Second Tang Dynasty — The 12 Sons of Fragrant Mountain Who Changed China; The Miraculous History of China’s Two Palace Museums and this one. Most have Chinese editions, both traditional and simplified, as well as English.
He lived in Beijing and Shanghai for more than 16 years. Now he works as an author, journalist and teacher, based in Hong Kong. He speaks and writes Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), French and Japanese.