The Self-Annihilation of Credibility – Part 6/6

There is no way to know when Robert Hart learned the details of the Taiping Rebellion. In Tilly’s opinion, he should have known all the details before the summer of 1855.

However, I have had the privilage of reading Robert Hart’s journal entries for his first year in China and he never mentions the Taipings—not once, but he does write about pirates, lonliness and his struggles to learn Chinese while working long days at the British consulate in Ningpo.

In  Entering China’s Service on page 156, it says, “Since 7 September 1853, the native city of Shanghai (not the foreign enclaves) had been in the hands of rebels from the Small Sword Society, an off-shoot of the Triads (note that it doesn’t say Taiping Rebels); Hart wrote of these circumstances when he was there (in Shanghai staying in the British sector) in route to Ningpo in early October 1854.”

On page 157, the editors said, “The local Triad Society rebellion at Shanghai was of course only a pale reflection of the great sweep of the Taiping Rebellion … In May 1855 … Hart heard that the rebels (the Taipings) had taken Yushan … between 300 and 400 miles from Ningpo. … Ningpo had more immediate concerns in the feud between the Portuguese lorchamen and Cantonese pirates. The prevalence of pirates … was a grave threat to the shipping of all nations (not the Taiping Rebellion).”

The Taipings did not control one port in China at this time.

Two months later, Robert would be spending the summer with his friend Captain Dan Patridge and there is no way to know what happened at Patridge’s house, because Hart burned the journals that covered the next 2.9 years—what did Robert want to hide?

In fact, Hart does not go into detail about who the Taipings were anywhere in his journals while he was still working in Ningpo, and that is understandable since he arrived in China not speaking or reading Chinese and was often isolated from other English speakers for days at a time in Ningpo as he worked long hours at the consulate dealing with merchants (both Chinese and Western) while struggling with the frustration of learning Chinese.

How could Hart discuss the details of a Chinese rebellion when he could not hold a conversatoin with the Chinese? It was also obvious from the entries in Hart’s journals that the few English speaking people he met in Ningpo, Shanghai or Hong Kong were not concerned about the Taiping Rebellion. It wasn’t a topic foreigners were interested in.

Knowing that there was a rebellion is one thing.  Knowing the specific details and history behind the cause of the rebellion is another and that was what Robert learned from Captain Dan Patridge in July 1855.

Hart arrived in Hong Kong in July 1854 and in July of 1855 he spends the summer with Partridge where he was introduced intimately to the concubine culture and discovered the details of the Taiping rebellion.

By the way, Patridge was a real person and he was the principal agent in China of Jardine and Matheson, the largest opium merchant operating in China. In fact, the Taipings were against the opium trade and wanted to throw all foreigners out of China.

Hart’s first year in China was spent mostly in isolation from his own kind and he felt lonely because of this. Most of the people he met on a daily basis were Chinese and he didn’t speak their language and they did not speak his. It was a difficult and demanding situation at best without the benefit of cultural workshops, inservices and the Interent that we take for granted today. I’m sure that the Queen’s College in Belfast did not have history courses on China during the 19th century and probably most of the 20th too.

Hart says in a July 29, 1855 entry of his journal, “I fear when I go back to the Consulate for the winter, I shall feel the loneliness very much.”

On page 169 of Entering China’s service, it says, “Unlike the lawlessness at Ningpo, which was due to crime—large scale, to be sure, but not organized as rebellion—the disorder of the 1850s at Canton was connected directly or indirectly with the rebellion of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.”

It would not be until 1858 that Hart was transferred to Canton. While Hart worked in Ningpo, as you may see, the concern of the Chinese and Westerners had little to do with the Taiping Rebellion and more with pirates and crime. Hart did not study Chinese history as it happened. He lived it and did not experience the Taiping Rebellion during his first year in China.

In addition, it wouldn’t be until Ayaou was his concubine, that he would start making progress learning Chinese and by then he knew all about the Taipings thanks to Captain Patridge, the opium merchant.

Tilly at the Readers Cafe has a right to her opinion about the novel but does not have a right to defame me or my work with a sloppy review filled with false claims of historical inaccuracy.

Return to The Self-Annihilation of Credibility – Part 5 or start with Part 1


Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

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2 responses to “The Self-Annihilation of Credibility – Part 6/6”

  1. Hello Lloyd,

    Pleased I am to find my little video on Qing history, China in 1860, appearing in your article – thanks muchly.

    I came upon this article while googling around to see if I could find something on whether Hart was ever pressed by the Qing court to don Chinese robes, shave his head, and wear a queue, as was Ward throughout his last two years in China. Have you ever come across any such thing in your wide reading about Hart?

    At this point, it seems to me that as a customs employee, his circumstances may have been quite different, and the Chinese may not have been as concerned about his loyalty, not nearly so much as they were about a loose cannon like Ward.

    Hart had robes for ceremonial occasions when needed (as can be seen in the Google photo archive), but western attire seems to have been his norm. And, of course, as he evidently had a high forehead and became naturally bald not too far into his career, the question of shaving his head could have become moot. As for a queue, should he have deigned to don one for some special occasion, a false queue would have sufficed as such did for stalwarts like Robert Fortune.

    This curiosity is prompted by hearing a while ago about Sidney Rittenberg’s insistence on wearing western dress and retaining his American passport while “in service” with Mao, and wondering if that is not a shifted 20th century paradigm of the synarchism introduced by John K. Fairbank in Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast (1953). Without stretching the point too much, even Western translators living in China today can often feel at least some pressure, if only to conform, as our expats frequently blog; however, translators may not be of sufficient consequence as to qualify as examples of synarchy like Hart and Ward.

    Best regards,
    James Lande

    1. James,

      Everything I’ve read of Hart says he wore traditional English suits of that era and there is no evidence that he wore a queue or grew his hair long enough for one. However, who knows for sure what he did during his first decade because he destroyed more than seven years of his journals that covered those ten years. He may have worn Chinese traditional clothing at home with Ayaou, his concubine, but we probably will never know.

      According to his niece, Juliet Bredon, in “Sir Robert Hart: the romance of a great career”, when he had his first and last audience with the Tzu Hsi, the Dowager Empress, inside the Forbidden City he was allowed to sit and he wore one of his English/European suits. According to Harvard scholars and Bredon, Tzu Hsi did not meet with foreigners except on one occasion when she had tea with the wives of the Western ambassadors. Unless I’m mixing up my source material, I think it was Bredon that mentions the empress told Hart that she regretted not meeting him earlier but the ministers of the court would not allow her to meet face to face with any western man—even Hart.

      However, in my novel, I took the liberty of dressing Hart in Qing ceremonial court robes for his one and only face to face meeting with the empress, and did it for a reason to dramatize his rank in the Qing court. This scene appears near the beginning of “My Splendid Concubine” (December 2007) but was moved to the end of the novel for the revised “The Concubine Saga” (2012). And in scenes with his concubines, I had the girls dress him in traditional Chinese robes, (the fictional Hart requested this), at home but he still wore his English suits to work at the British consulate.

      Although Hart had the rank of a minister of the Qing court, I doubt that he attended many of the meetings inside the Forbidden City. Instead, I think he was more concerned with running Customs and when he did meet with ministers it was outside the walls of the Forbidden City at the Tsungli Yamen. His Peking mansion was close to Prince Kung’s palace so I suspect he spent time there too. Of course, this would be Hart’s second house in Peking because the Boxer’s burned the one he lived in from the late 1960s to 1900.


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