“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, in June 1861. 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 the 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 the two families 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.
Mr Mark O’Neill was born in 1950 in Britain. He was educated at Marlborough College and New College, Oxford where he graduated with a degree in English Language and Literature. He worked in Washington DC, Manchester and Belfast before moving to Hong Kong in 1978. He has lived in Asia since then, working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, China and Japan for Reuters News Agency and the South China Morning Post. He now lives in Hong Kong and works as a journalist, writer and university lecturer. He speaks French, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese.
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