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 since Hart 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. 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.
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