Lloyd Lofthouse earned a BA in journalism after fighting in Vietnam as a U. S. Marine. He then taught English and journalism in the public schools by day and for a time worked as a maitre d’ in a multimillion-dollar nightclub by night. He now lives near San Francisco with his wife, and they have a second home in Shanghai, China.
Your novel My Splendid Concubine is about the real-life adventures of Baronet Robert Hart, who was Inspector General of China’s Imperial Maritime Custom Service (IMCS) from 1863 to 1911. What was it that inspired you to write about the intersection of British and Chinese history?
In 1999, while my wife (she is Chinese and was born in Shanghai and grew up there during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In the mid 1980s, she came to the US, earned a MFA from the Chicago Art Institute and then became a US citizen) and I were still dating, since I have some Irish and British DNA, she mentioned I might be interested in an Irishman that went to China in 1854 at 19 and stayed for fifty-four years.
I Googled Robert Hart and discovered that Harvard University Press had published his letters and journals in several volumes and that his work in China was important enough that the Emperor of China awarded him with a high imperial rank; Queen Victoria knighted him as a Baron, and a dozen European countries including the Vatican awarded him honors, and he wasn’t a Catholic.
East-Asian historians and scholars call Hart the godfather of China’s modernization since he was behind China modernizing its military, setting up a pilot service, reorganizing its schools to compete with the West, building China’s first railroads and creating a postal service similar to the West.
He also negotiated treaties between foreign powers and Imperial China. There is evidence that at one time the Japanese planned to have him assassinated.
There was also a mystery about his Concubine. After his return to England in 1908, Robert Hart attempted (but failed) to erase her as if she hadn’t been part of his life.
I wanted to know why.
After all, as I would discover from one of the letters he wrote a friend later in his life, he loved her — she was the Juliet to his Romeo (a forbidden love) and the passion of his life. Losing her almost killed him through grief (I discovered this from a letter his niece Juliet Bredon wrote).
The research for this book must have been fascinating. What aspects of Hart’s biography were the most intriguing?
After I discovered what Hart had accomplished in China, I wanted to know more.
I bought “Entering China’s Service, Robert Hart’s Journals” and “The I. G. in Peking, Letters of Robert Hart, and Chinese Maritime Customs 1868 – 1907” from Harvard University Press and read all three hefty volumes highlighting and taking notes as I read. I now have several shelves filled with books about China.
Sterling Seagrave also mentions Ayaou in his book “Dragon Lady”, which was about the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who ruled China from behind the Dragon Throne through her son then nephew for most of the time that Robert lived and worked in China. The empress would die two weeks after he left China in 1908.
Robert Hart had several private audiences with Tzu Hsi, the only Western man to ever do so.
What did they talk about? Hart would later tell his niece, Juliet Bredon, the empress cried during their last conversation.
In fact, at their last meeting in 1908, Tzu Hsi gave him some “keepsakes”.
Overcome with emotion, Hart was struck dumb, completely forgetting the proper formula for returning thanks, which caused a Chinese minister standing close to throw himself on the ground begging for forgiveness.
According to Seagrave, Hart and the empress ignored the man and continued to have their conversation as if the shocked Chinese minister weren’t there and this was a conversation between two, old trusted friends.
On page 150 of the 1992 paperback edition, Seagrave wrote, “By early May he (Robert Hart) had a sleep-in dictionary, his concubine, Ayaou. He had just turned twenty; Ayaou was barely past puberty but was wise beyond her years.”
What did he accomplish in China?
Seagrave writes in ‘Dragon Lady,’ “From his first days in China, Hart had taken offense at the way Westerners casually abused the Chinese.”
Due to this, Robert Hart decided he would be China’s friend and strive to save China from becoming another part of the British Empire as India had or, for that matter, the victim of any Western Imperial power.
Hart admired the Chinese, their history, literature, art and culture and dedicated himself to saving it. Learning languages came easily the Hart, and he mastered Mandarin.
When Hart left China in 1908, he was Chinese nobility (no other foreigner in history ever achieved this high of a rank) and had been named as the senior guardian of the heir to the Dragon Throne. Queen Victoria knighted him in the 1880s and he was honored by a dozen European nations for his contributions to world peace and China.
Here’s what it said on the bronze plaque at the base of the brass statue that the Emperor of China ordered to be established on the Bund in Shangahi where it stood from 1913 to 1942 when the Japanese destroyed it.
1. Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs
2. Founder of the Chinese Lighthouse service
3. Organizer and administrator of the national post office
4. Trusted counselor of the Chinese government
5. True friend of the Chinese people
6. Modest, patient, sagacious and resolute, he overcame formidable obstacles, and accomplished a work of great beneficence for China and the world.
The first Noble Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. It is conceivable if the Noble Peace Prize had existed in the latter half of the 19th century, Robert Hart would have earned one.
It would be interesting to find out if he was ever on the short list for the Peace Prize during its first few years.
Ayaou is the eponymous concubine in this story. Was she a real person? Ayaou was real. How did you find information about her? Ayaou is mentioned in the books published by Harvard University Press.
In addition, Sterling Seagrave mentions Ayaou in his book “Dragon Lady”, which was about the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who ruled China from behind the Dragon Throne for most of the time that Robert lived and worked in China.
However, after returning to England in 1908, Robert Hart burned the journals that covered the first three years he lived with Ayaou. Shortly before his death, he instructed his family and friends to burn his other journals and all of the letters he had written to them as soon as he was gone.
We are fortunate that his wishes were not carried out.
After his death, his oldest son from his marriage with his Irish wife, Hester Jane, (they were married in Ireland in 1866—she was 19 and he was 31) turned over all of these papers to the Queens College in Belfast where the originals are today.
Sir Robert Hart Collection: http://digitalcollections.qub.ac.uk/digital-image-gallery/hart/
In addition, Robert and Ayaou had three children and in 1966, he returned to Ireland with them and placed them with a foster family (known by his family) where they grew up supported financially by their father. A letter Hart wrote to his friend and agent Campbell in 1875 was the evidence.
The Harvard scholars that published his journals wrote, “We may also infer that experience with Ayoau anchors him permanently in China, where so important a part of his maturation has occurred… Hart’s years in liaison with Ayaou gave him his fill of romance, including both is satisfactions and its limitations.”
In “My Splendid Concubine”, my goal was to recreate the missing journals he burned that covered a time of almost three years between 1855 and 1857. The sequel picks up where his surviving journals continue the story. However, he spent time going through the surviving journals blacking out sentences and words as if he were attempting to erase Ayaou from memory.
I wanted to explore that aspect of Hart’s character too.
How has writing Hart’s story changed your life?
After reading Robert Hart’s surviving journals, (he burned the journals covering his first three years with his concubine) and the Harvard University books that published his letters, I learned things about China I’d never heard before.
Then I went to China to see for myself, not once but nine times, doing more research into Robert Hart, China’s culture, people, history and current government. I’ve been learning about China and its people since 1999 and haven’t stopped yet, which is why I wrote iLook China.net — my Blog about China and the Chinese wherever they live.
I’ve talked to Tibetan refugees and high (retired) Communist officials.
I discovered that everything I’d read and heard from the Western media for fifty-four years was misleading and often lies. In fact, the major Western media leaves out much information of China’s history and modern government.
The China of today is a “direct” result of Western and American interference and it started when the British and French invaded China in 1839 starting the First Opium War so Western merchants could legally sell opium to China’s population.
Another example is Tibet. From Robert Hart’s letters, I learned that the Chinese Communist government is correct in their claims that Tibet had been part of China for several hundred years. It wasn’t until 1913 that the British convinced the Dalai Lama to separate from China as it was embroiled in turmoil, anarchy, chaos, Civil War then World War II and was in no shape to reclaim a province that had declared its freedom from China as the Southern States did in America leading to the US Civil War.
Shocked, I discovered from Robert Hart, the claims of Tibetan separatists, the Dalai Lama and his Western supporters that China had never ruled over Tibet were lies.
When Mao invaded Tibet in 1950, he was reclaiming a lost province as Abraham Lincoln did during the American Civil War. There is evidence in Taiwan that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists would have done the same thing if they had won the Chinese Civil War.
The Nationalist Chinese in Taiwan claim that Tibet belongs to China, but we never hear that from the Western media.
In fact, the 1912 October issue of The National Geographic Magazine offers more evidence and goes into detail of the Chinese Imperial governors assigned to Tibet (I have an original copy of that magazine. It cost me $20 on e-bay.).
What I learned of China led to being a guest expert of China on about 30 talk-radio shows in 2008 before the Beijing Olympics took place. For writing and telling the truth, Tibetans have called me a Chinese Communist Rabbit and American Sinophobes have claimed that I’m pro China, which leads me to believe that I would have to tell lies to be against China.
What do you hope readers come away with after enjoying your book?
A better understanding and curiosity to discover the the truth of China and not the fiction and myths generated by the Western media and American Sinophobes (studies reveal that more than a hundred million Americans fear China) that contribute to the lies and deceit that most in the West believe.
In what formats can we read your book and where can we find it?
“The Concubine Saga” (My Splendid Concubine and the sequel, Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine) have been published in paperback and are available as e-books in most e-reader formats. The most popular format is Amazon Kindle, which sells several hundred copies a month.
With the ISBNs, a paperback copy of either novel may be ordered from any brick and mortar bookstore.
An easier way to buy a copy is directly from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com. All one need do is type my name or “My Splendid Concubine” into the book search at Amazon.
However, I plan to release both books as one title, “The Concubine Saga”, soon with a new cover and ISBN.
Thank you, Lloyd.
Anmarie Banks for Historical Fiction eBooks