As an interpreter in the British consulate and then Inspector-General of Foreign Customs in China in the mid-19th century, Robert Hart trod many paths. The son of a Wesleyan pastor, he "drifted off the path of righteousness into the arms of booze and babes — my words, not his," says Lloyd Lofthouse, who will discuss My Splendid Concubine, a work of historical fiction featuring Hart, at Bay Books (1669 Willow Pass Rd., Concord) on Thursday, May 22. Hart had an enduring relationship with a young concubine, Ayaou: "Whatever Hart was looking for in love and passion, he found it with Ayaou," says Lofthouse, who first heard about Hart from his wife, the novelist Anchee Min, with whom he divides his time between the Bay Area and Shanghai. "It's as if he wanted one feast in his life he would never forget, and that feast was Ayaou."
Hart is best known not for love but for politics, and is often credited with modernizing China. Working for the emperor, he used keen diplomatic skills to negotiate treaties and thus, Lofthouse says, "kept China out of wars — as much as possible." Significantly, "he respected the Chinese people and culture and felt it was worth saving. Hart was knighted by Queen Victoria and honored by more than a dozen other countries including the Vatican. ... Today, he would probably have a Nobel Peace Prize under his belt too. I'm sure that without Hart, China would have been carved up by Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, and America along with a few other vultures that were looking to pick this ancient civilization's bones. Hart predicted the Boxer Rebellion and the reasons for it. He also wrote ... that China would be back on her feet again by 2100 — meaning that China would be a superpower."
Researching Ayaou was difficult, because Hart purposely burned many of his letters and journals: "I had to reconstruct her by studying Chinese culture, and that took years" — nine, altogether. "Without Anchee, I don't think it could have been done." Ayaou belonged to a low-class, boat-dwelling subculture: "The only clue that Ayaou was a boat girl was a line in one of Hart's journals when she returned from Macao to Canton soon after he quit the British and went to work for the Emperor. He wrote, 'My boat girl is back.'" Lofthouse believes Hart was motivated to destroy his papers not out of shame but out of privacy: "What he had with Ayaou was something special he wanted to keep to himself. I don't think he would approve of My Splendid Concubine ... but we live in a different age than Victorian England. I feel that this love story deserves to be told."
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