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 on 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.
Mark O’Neill is British and worked as a journalist in Britain, Hong Kong and Taiwan before joining Reuters in 1983. He spent 13 years with the world’s leading news agency in Hong Kong, New Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo before joining the South China Morning Post, for which he worked in Beijing and Shanghai. Since 2007 he had been a lecturer in journalism at Baptist University, Hong Kong University and United International College, Zhuhai and a freelance journalist for publications including the South China Morning Post.
His past publications include a biography of his grandfather Rev Frederick O’Neill, an Irish Presbyterian missionary in China and books on the Chinese Labour Corp in Europe and the Chinese in Russia in World War One. He has also written about 12 outstanding people of Xiangshan in the late Qing and early Republican periods. His gave a talk to us last year on his book about the two Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei, “The Miraculous History of China’s Two Palace Museums” “兩故宫的世纪傳奇”.
Cost: £8 per member or guest, to include refreshments
Lunch: A self-paying lunch will be arranged at 12:30 p.m. at Chutneys, 124 Drummond Street, London NW1 2PA (corner of North Gower Street.) Tel: 020 7388 0604. Please note on the booking form if you wish to join the lunch.
Booking: Please complete the booking form in the Newsletter and return it with your cheque asap.