* * * *
Just when Robert thought he’d seen the worst of it, he discovered that Taiping rebels had taken the old, walled Chinese city of Shanghai. It was close to the English concession where he would live for a few days.
He was assigned to stay with the Lay brothers, Horatio and William. Horatio was the oldest at twenty-two. The brothers had been sent to China for careers in the British Foreign Service shortly after their father’s death. Their father had been the British Consul in Canton, Foochow and Amoy.
Horatio stood about Robert’s height, five foot eight. With cadaverous features and dark bags under his eyes, he looked older than his age. Because he held his head at an angle in front of his shoulders, he reminded Robert of a turkey.
“How safe is it here?” Robert asked, after being introduced to Horatio. He told the man what had happened on the voyage north.
“There is nothing to worry about,” Horatio replied. “Just stay in the British concession in Shanghai, and don’t explore any of the smaller side streets. The Taiping rebels hold the walled Chinese part of the old city. They’d behead you if they got their hands on you.”
Hearing that did not comfort him. Robert wondered what was wrong with China? He decided to fetch his pistol the first chance he got and carry it with him everywhere he went.
Since coming to China, he’d been approached to purchase a woman like one would a pound of meat. Then pirates had chased the Iona up the coast from Hong Kong. Now rebels were taking over Chinese cities. “What kind of military or navy does China have?” Robert asked.
“Are you still dwelling on that?” Horatio replied, as if Robert was a child. To be talked to like that irritated him. “We have French, English and American gunboats in the harbor and military troops in the concessions. When you walk the streets that belong to England, it’s the same as if you were walking on British soil. Unless the Chinese Imperials invite us to be part of the battle to regain the old city that belongs to them by treaty, we’ll stay out of it.”
The first chance he had, Robert loaded the pistol and kept it in his pocket anyway. Over the years, Robert treated that weapon like it was a close friend.
Horatio was the Vice Consul in Shanghai, and his younger brother William was his assistant. It amazed Robert how fast one advanced here. If he could stay alive, Robert thought he had a chance to make something of himself. He was eager to get started although he had doubts about learning the complex, tonal language. Just saying a word like apple in the wrong tone meant insulting the person being talked to.
* * * *
One afternoon, Horatio, William and Robert went to the English racecourse to watch the horses run. Horse racing existed wherever the British Empire held sway, but Robert had never developed an interest in it.
“The Chinese can’t manage things,” Horatio said. “Their generals can’t win battles. Their officials can’t collect taxes. They don’t cooperate, so our merchants have trouble here. Everyone in China is out to fill his purse with silver, and there is little or no concern about the smooth running of the government or the economy. These fools are penny wise and pound-foolish. Stealing and telling lies is a way of life here.”
Horatio stopped to breathe. “There are probably more people in China than all Europe, and they don’t have railroads. Imagine controlling the concession for building railroads here and the wealth from it.” A bell rang signaling another race. Horatio stopped to watch the horses break from the gate.
“To my way of thinking,” he continued, once the horses were rounding the first turn, “China is doomed unless Britain moves in as it did in India and takes control. With the British army here and our governor advising the Emperor, we’d get this place organized in no time. The problem is that the French, Germans, Portuguese, Russians and Japanese all want to do the same thing.”
“Wait until I’m done,” Horatio said.
Robert almost snapped a retort, but stopped himself before the first word leaked out. Getting into an argument with a superior was not the way to start a job. He had wanted to say that India was nothing like China. He hoped that he wouldn’t be working with this man for long.
“The Chinese want to live as they’ve always lived,” Horatio said. “Did you know that Emperor Qing-shi-huang-di, who unified China almost two thousand years ago, declared one money and one written language. The scholars protested. He solved the problem by rounding them up and having them dig one large grave. Then his army set them on fire while they were still alive. He got what he wanted. There’s a lesson to be learned from that emperor.”
If Robert had listened carefully, he would’ve been warned. Years later he’d confront Horatio and his greed for power. If Horatio was an example, success had a price attached to it that Robert didn’t like. He thought of a passage from one of Emerson’s essays, which he admired. ‘Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principals.’
William was his brother’s opposite. Where Horatio was moody an grumpy, William was bubbly and cheerful, but with Horatio it was usually a one-sided conversation. Robert did not enjoy talking to him.
Later, after Horatio left to return to work at the consulate, Robert and William had dinner together. He shared with William the advice Sir John Bowring had given him in Hong Kong.
“That’s good advice,” William replied, “but you should know that a lot of the problems my brother complains about are not Chinese in the making. Sir John is responsible for starting one of our wars with China. After he became governor of Hong Kong, he granted licenses to Chinese ships to sail under a British flag without checking whom he was licensing. This caused problems.”
“How?” Robert asked.
“Because licensing anybody to sail under a British flag leads to Chinese smugglers and pirates operating in Chinese waters under our protection. If a Chinese naval ship approaches a pirate or smuggler, the rogue runs up a British flag. There was an incident between the Chinese government and a notorious pirate licensed to fly the British flag. Sir John used this as an excuse to start a war our Prime Minister didn’t want.”
Robert wondered if the pirate who’d chased the Iona had a British flag tucked away somewhere. William ate some crab, took a sip of wine and patted his lips dry before he continued. “Sir John will do anything to gain power and prestige. Be careful around him.” He stopped and cocked his head at an angle and studied Robert. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t share what we talk about with my brother.”
“I assure you,” Robert said, “that what you say to me will go unspoken.”
William nodded. “Good. I’m counting on you. If you haven’t figured it out yet, my brother is the same as Sir John. There are a lot of people like that in China, but I’m not one.”
An American merchant, a friend of William’s, came to the table and introductions went around. The American had four Chinese concubines with him, and he was proud to exhibit them. To his consternation Robert found that he was having trouble keeping his eyes off them. He didn’t care for their painted faces, but they had beautiful black lacquer hair and a delicate bone structure.
“Where did you meet them?” Robert asked.
The American was lanky with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs. He had huge ears and large green eyes. He looked ungainly like a scarecrow that had escaped from a cornfield. He reminded Robert of Ichabod Crane, a character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
“I didn’t meet them,” the American replied. “Women are traded here like goods. If you want, I’ll introduce you to the matchmaker I used. She specializes in getting women for foreigners. You can pick from Korean girls or girls from Siam or Vietnam. If you’re willing to pay a premium, she’ll get you a Han Chinese from a respectable family. That’s what she claims.
“My girls come from Kansu province in the east where the peasants sell their daughters to avoid starvation. All four of my girls were virgins when I paid for them. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Fascinating,” Robert said, unable to respond. His education on China was continuing quickly. If this kept up, he wondered what it would do to him. The messenger boy in Hong Kong had only been the primer.
“If you’re interested, I’ll introduce you to the old hag, and she’ll hook you up. What you get depends on how much you want to pay. That way when you arrive at your duty station in Ningpo, you’ll have a desirable girl to keep your bed warm. It gets cold during the winter.”
“Let me think on it,” Robert replied, wondering why everyone considered Chinese girls marvelous bed warmers. Was that all a woman was good for in China? If that was true , it was a horrible fate.
“No problem,” the American said. “Ningpo isn’t that far from Shanghai. When you’re ready, make a trip back. Meanwhile save enough so you can buy a pair of lovebirds. That way you’ll have one sleeping on either side of you keeping you warm. If my girls don’t please me, they know I’ll send them back to Kansu and starvation.”
Robert was glad when the American turned toward William. From the heat he felt spreading over his face he knew he must be beet red to the tips of his ears. He wasn’t sure if he was disgusted or embarrassed.
William and Robert talked later that evening in a pub closer to the consulate. The place was smoky from cigars and cigarettes. On one wall was a dartboard where several British naval officers competed for drinks. Every time one of the officers scored a hit, a cheer broke out and more ale was poured.
“What brought you to China?” William asked.
“I’m here because while attending the Queen’s College in Belfast, I developed a talent for languages. That led to my position as an interpreter.”
What he didn’t tell William was that he’d left for China like a runaway child escaping his sins, which he’d hoped would fade with time but had discovered were like sticky cobwebs trapped inside his head. Originally Robert intended to stay in college for a master’s degree. That had ended because there had been too many women, and he had started to drink. When his father discovered his transgressions, Robert felt he had no choice but to leave. Besides, the eighteen-hour days he spent studying had worn him down to the point that he saw authors creeping through the keyhole.
“How long has your family been in Ireland?” William asked.
“For generations,” Hart replied.
One of the naval officers came to the table. He’d spilled some ale on his uniform, and his breath smelled sour. “Why don’t you blokes join us in a game?” he asked.
“Sorry, but we’re discussing Crown business,” William said. “We work at the consulate.” The officer stared at them for a few seconds with unfocused eyes. Then he staggered back to the dart game.
“How many languages do you speak?” William asked.
“French, German and Spanish, and I plan to learn Japanese after I’ve mastered Chinese. I also studied Greek and Latin. I’ve read all the classics in both of those languages.”
“You must love to read. Maybe we could trade books.”
“I have some of Emerson’s essays with me,” Robert said.
“Emerson? I haven’t heard of him.”
“Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet. I admire what he writes. Here’s an example, ‘We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.’ I recommend you start with his essay on self-reliance.”
“Of course, do lend it to me,” William said. “Do you always remember what you read?”
“When something strikes me, I make it mine. I’ve memorized favorite passages from Shakespeare and other poets and writers too. I’m a walking book and never get enough.” Deciding to change the subject, Robert asked, “What about the Chinese? How do they look at Westerner’s who own their women?”
There was a roar of laughter from the naval officers. William waited for the noise to die before answering. “The Chinese do not judge a man’s physical needs as in Victorian England. Here a man can have as many women as he can buy. It’s a Chinese tradition that a man has both wives and concubines, and they live under one roof. Even after a wealthy man has both wives and concubines, he’ll still visit courtesans’ houses. There is no sexual repression in China. In fact, it’s impossible for an official in the government to avoid dinners with female entertainers.”
He tapped the table for emphasis. “However, any girl bought by a foreigner loses face with the other Chinese women and will never be able to live a normal life again. You see, most of us leave China eventually, and the women stay behind. It isn’t an appealing fate.”
“What do you mean by losing face?” Robert asked.
“That’s complicated,” William replied. “As I see it, gaining face or losing face has something to do with your influence and power but even a penniless monk can have more face than a powerful general or governor depending on his reputation. I think it means to take a risk to achieve something. If you succeed, even if it means breaking a few laws and hurting or killing innocent people along the way, you gain face but if you take the risk and lose, you end with no face. With no face,a respectable Chinese man will probably hang himself.”
Robert shook his head. “It sounds like a difficult concept to grasp.”
“In China, face is everything, because what one man does can destroy an entire family or even an entire clan.”
“You mentioned most foreign men leave their women when they return home,” Robert said. “What happens to the women?”
“After the foreign man leaves, the Chinese woman never lives a normal life again. Most become dockside prostitutes. And if the woman had children by the man, the children suffer worse than the woman who bore them.
“I’ve seen beautiful half-breed girls as young as eight or nine hooked on opium selling their bodies to any man who will pay. They do it so they can eat. When most of these half-breed children get old enough to have babies, the baby usually gets dumped in the river.”
“It sounds like women have no value here,” Robert said, shocked.
“Not so.” William shook his head. “If you are the dowager of a large, respectable family, you have power in the home.” William laughed at the confusion on Robert’s face. “Let me explain further,” he said. “The man could be a peasant farmer or the governor of a province appointed by the Emperor, and that governor commands an army and collects hundreds of thousand of taels in taxes each year. He married because of an arrangement made soon after he was born. Besides that first wife, he could have married two or three others and maybe has a few concubines. He also visits the houses of courtesans and plays around with a sing-song girl now and then, who are of course hoping he buys them and makes them his concubines so their lot in life will improve.
“However, once that first wife gives him a son, she has the power inside the home. She can make life wonderful or miserable for the entire family, including the husband. There is nothing the man can do about it. It’s all part of the Chinese way.
“When a son marries, he hasn’t gained a wife; he’s given a daughter-in-law to his mother. The horrible part is that the daughter-in-law can be treated like a slave, and the son can do nothing about it. The son won’t cross his mother.
“Then the daughter-in-law gives birth to a son. Then one-day her husband’s mother dies and suddenly the wife, who was the daughter-in-law, is now the dowager and has all the power inside the home. Now she can make life miserable or wonderful for the family. When her sons marry, she has daughters-in-law to boss around until she dies, and the power inside the home passes to someone else. It can be a vicious circle.”
Everything Robert heard confounded and bothered him at the same time.
William reached over and put a hand on Hart’s shoulder. “Welcome to China, Robert,” he said, with a big grin.
“What will I learn next?” Robert asked.