Robert Hart: a man of two worlds

Martin Lynn recounts the experiences of Robert Hart employed by the Chinese in the dying phases of the Qing Dynasty. This article first appeared in SACU's China Now magazine in 1988

Robert Hart was witness to many of the major events of late nineteenth century Chinese history, a period when the country was wrestling with the twin problems of foreign intervention and the need to modernise. He was to live through four foreign invasions of China, the Taiping Rebellion of 1852-64, the Boxer rising of 1900, the attempted partition of the country by the West and the eventual crumbling of power of the last of the great Chinese imperial dynasties, the Qing. An Ulsterman, born in Portadown in 1835, he arrived in China aged only 19 as an assistant and interpreter in the British consular service. After service in Hong Kong, Ningbo and Guangzhou (Canton) he resigned in 1859 and became Deputy Commissioner of Customs at Canton. For the rest of his career until his death at the age of 76 in 1911 he was to be an employee of the Chinese government. He received a Chinese peerage in 1889 and a British Knighthood in 1893.

In 1863 Hart became Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a position he was to hold for the next 48 years. The Customs Service grew out of the 'treaty port' system, with its foreign privileges and extra-territorial rights, that were imposed on China by the Western powers during the mid-nineteenth century. Its function was to regulate trading relations between China and the Western powers and to collect customs revenue for the Chinese government. Although a department of the Chinese government, the Customs Service was almost entirely staffed with foreigners in its upper echelons. Its Inspector General was always a Westerner. In collecting revenue for Beijing however, the Customs Service provided the government with a regular income independent of interference by the provincial authorities, thereby strengthening the dynasty's position against its rivals. But by the end of the century, China fell more and more into debt due to the indemnities it was forced to pay following defeats by foreign powers, as well as loans raised abroad. Much of the Customs revenue came to be pledged to outsiders for many years in advance.

Custom-made post

The Customs Service, and Hart's role in it, illustrates the West's influence in China in the late nineteenth century, with China's independence slowly being eroded by outsiders. But it also illuminates China's first steps in modernisation: it was the first department run on western lines. By the turn of the century it employed nearly 18,000 Chinese and 1,500 foreigners. It was also responsible for China's western-style Postal Service, established in 1896. The revenues of the Customs Service were used to pay for the modernisation of China's military forces and for the building of railways, arsenals and factories in the reform and 'self-strengthening' movements of the 1880s and 1890s.

In many ways the Customs Service was Hart's own creation. Like it, he stood at the interface between China and the West, representing foreign influence in China, yet being used repeatedly by the Chinese government as its representative in dealing with foreign powers. He had, in the words of one historian, 'a profound sense of loyalty and obligation to the Chinese government'. Yet he was aware of his ambiguous position as both a foreign national and an employee of the Chinese government, helping to modernise China as he saw it, but representing an influence that was by no means beneficial to Chinese interests. He admitted to his diary: 'There have been a mixture of motives, self, the public and China have all been intermixed, perhaps with more weight given to No. 1 than was right'. This ambiguity also comes out in the tasks he set himself when appointed Inspector General in 1863, tasks that reveal a view that wished to benefit China, yet on western terms: 'I must whip the foreign Inspectorate (of Customs) into shape, the duties must be properly collected. I must learn more about the Chinese. I must try to induce among such Chinese as I can influence a friendlier feeling towards foreigners. I must endeavour to ascertain what products of our western civilisation would most benefit China and in what ways such changes could most appropriately be introduced'. This was to be modernisation, but on western terms and under western leadership.

Old footbridge
Old footbridge in Sichuan

Supporting East and West

Yet Hart was clear in his loyalty to the Imperial dynasty, rejoicing, for example, in the defeat of the Taiping rebellion which swept much of southern and central China in the 1850s and which for a while even threatened Beijing itself. As the struggle unfolded, Hart found himself 'glorifying in the fall of Suzhou, delighted that ... the Imperialists should gain a point that would give them confidence, dispirit the Taipings and cause outsiders to believe in the possibility of the rebellion being effectually and speedily put down, without further foreign intervention, by the Chinese officials themselves'. He added that 'my desire for seeing the Imperialist [i.e. Qing] cause triumph is based on my honest conviction that Imperialism gives promises of better things for China than does Taipingism'. At the same time he was hardly sanguine about the possibilities of the Qing government reforming itself. 'this dynasty is so weak and the provinces are all so troubled ... What is to be done?'

Hart saw himself as a mediator between the West and China. Over time he came to respect Chinese culture deeply, praising Confucianism and what he termed 'Chinese reason, pragmatism and common sense'. He was more aware than many of his countrymen of the need for Chinese and foreigners to treat each other as equals as the basis of a lasting relationship. In this he was out of step with his times. He criticised his predecessor as Inspector General for feeling very badly treated because they don't say 'yes' when he says 'do this'. He recorded in his diary his outrage at a colleague in the British service in 'the way in which he treated the Chinese pitching their goods into the water and touching them with his cane because they would not row out from the quay when we entered an (adjacent) boat'. Similarly he objected to the Western powers' habit of fining a neighbourhood after an assault on a foreigner: 'I do not approve of these fines at all for they will cause the Chinese to look upon us as grasping and avaricious'.

It was in the Boxer Rising to purge China of foreigners and foreign influence that swept China in 1900 that the ambiguities of Hart's position stand out most starkly. Hart was one of the many foreigners and Chinese Christians besieged by the Boxers (more correctly, the Yihequan or Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists) in the foreign legations in Beijing in the summer of 1900. The Customs offices, his house and all of his property were destroyed in the rising. Hart had been aware of the approaching storm, noting in his diary early in the year, 'the Boxers are busy all around', and later, 'the children in the streets are practising the Boxers' drill',

Siege of Beijing

By mid-June, as the Boxers closed on the legations, he noted how fires were breaking, out all over the city, and Europeans and Christian converts were being assaulted in the streets. 'I wonder if this is my last entry? Friday 15 June 1900 6 pm', he wrote in his diary. It wasn't. Shortly after, on June 20th he added, 'Legation Siege begins ... Firing began down the street at 4 pm exactly'.

The siege was a gruelling experience, with the defenders desperately short of ammunition. It was not until August 14 that he could write: 'Relief force appeared at 3 pm ... Siege ends'.

Despite what he himself had suffered in the Rising, Hart refused to share in the West's demands for revenge. He criticised the behaviour of the relief forces: all except the Japanese indulged in pillage and rape, 'relief has little improved our condition'. Instead of revenge, he saw a role for himself in the ensuing confusion: 'happily I have been able to find some Chinese ministers and shall meet them this evening: I hope to arrange a basis or pave the way to an understanding'.

Remarkably, he took a not unsympathetic view of the Boxer Rising. He refused to dismiss the Boxers as mindless 'bandits' bent on destruction, as most Europeans assumed. They were 'a movement of a political nature and not simply a raid for plunder ... Their first object was mutual defence and that defence was mainly directed against what was considered to be foreign aggression: such a purpose and such an organisation in any other country would be styled patriotic'. He felt that the West had called the rising on itself: 'we cannot say we had no warning', adding that 'the rising had a fixed object, the checking or destruction of aggressive foreigners, and with a simple enemy, foreign aggression of various kinds, which carried with it justification in the eyes of the government and won for it sympathy among the people'.

Aftermath of Boxer rebellion

Hart saw the Boxer Rising within the context of the previous half century of foreign encroachment in China. 'For 50 years or so we had been lecturing the government, telling it that it must prove strong, must create an army and navy, must introduce foreign drill, must adopt foreign weapons, must prepare to hold its own against all sides, and certain firms did a very profitable trade in arms and ships ... Missionaries were at work in the interior and converts offended their countrymen, first by entering foreign religious societies, second by refusing as Christians to take part in village festivals and third by getting missionaries to support them against local officials in matters of litigation'.

Although in his sixties, Hart chose to stay on in Beijing after the Rising, 'hoping that I might be of use to the Customs Service, to China and to general interests'. In the ensuing months he reflected on the Rising and revealed a perceptive understanding of its significance, an understanding that few Westerners shared. 'Is China to be reformed from within or must reform come from without? ... that has been the Far Eastern question of the last half century and will continue to interest thinkers through most of the one we now enter on'. After nearly 50 years in the country it was clear where his sympathies now lay. The Chinese people was 'looking forward to live its own life without foreign interference or intrusion - that race is at last awake and its every member is tingling with Chinese feeling - "China for the Chinese and out with the foreigner!" The Boxer movement began as, and is, a purely patriotic volunteer movement: it has taken hold of the popular imagination and will spread all over the country'. Its aim, he added, was 'to destroy Christian converts and stamp out Christianity and to free China from a foreign cult, and on the whole not to hurt or kill but to terrify foreigners, frighten them out of the country and thus free China from the intrusion of aliens - and this is the object which will be kept in view, worked up to and in all probability accomplished during the new century'.