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Robert Hart (1835-1911), the ‘Godfather of China’s modernism’, was the Inspector General of China’s Customs Service. He was also the architect behind China’s railroads, postal network, telegraph systems and schools. No Westerner, including Marco Polo, has ever achieved Hart’s status and level of power in China.
How did this young Englishman achieve success in an alien empire?
What would become an academic and then personal treasure hunt started with Robert Hart’s journals written over his fifty-four years in China, some of which had been published by the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard.
However, a few of these diaries covering a critical period of Robert’s early years in China were missing since Hart burned them shortly before his death. Enough information survived to reveal that he had an affair for about a decade with a Chinese concubine named Ayaou, who bore him three children.
My wife, who at the time was researching and writing her next novel, said there was an underground archive in Shanghai where old books, manuscripts and documents of all sorts had been stored for decades since the Cultural Revolution.
The problem was that the public wasn’t allowed access. We went to China believing that if we kept trying we might be able to ‘pry’ the door open, and eventually a favor was granted.
At six one morning, the gatekeeper led us to a Russian military style brown building that looked as if it were in the middle of being renovated.
Cautiously we went down a crumbling concrete stairway into the underground and found what had once been a bomb shelter during the Cultural Revolution. A series of long damp tunnels led to more rooms.
The pungent odor of insecticide choked us the moment we passed through the vault-like door at the bottom.
Signs everywhere warned us: “Xian-ren-muo-ru”—”No Visitors—Officials Only.”
Inside were makeshift shelves crowded with dust covered chests. Although searching for records that dealt with the topic of my wife’s book, we also searched for Imperial records that detailed Robert Hart’s time in China. We wanted information on his early years while still an interpreter for the British Consulate in Ningpo—his years with Ayaou.
We weren’t allowed to take anything out, so we returned each morning and spent days in the claustrophobic, chemical laden, damp and dim archive that felt more like a tomb.
In time, we discovered a stack of boxes sealed with white banner shaped paper stamped with red ink that said Red Guard Headquarters. These boxes were filled with affidavits about the ‘British Imperialist Robert Hart’s intimate corrupted life’ gathered from the provinces and cities including Canton, Zhejing and Ningpo.
The Red Guards had put Robert Hart on trial more than fifty years after his death to prove that what he had done for China was evil. People who knew of the Inspector General were ‘ordered’ to confess whatever stories or rumors had been passed to them.
The results were written on crumbling, aging documents in these boxes. What we discovered was a story that speaks to the heart. To do it justice it was decided to use a fictional narrative format and write a historical novel that would blend psychology, sociology, politics and art with the dynamic process of history and weave it into one seamless tapestry while attempting to stay as true as possible to the events of the time.
A repulsive odor assaulted Robert Hart’s sense of smell before the Erin sailed into sight of the Chinese city. From the stench, it was obvious that raw sewage ran from Ningpo into the Yung River staining the water dark-brown.
It was more than he could stand. His trip to China from Ireland had not been the adventure he had imagined.
A month earlier, his ship had reached Hong Kong on July 25, where he had witnessed an American mercenary using dead infants for target practice. It didn’t help that the infants were floating in Victoria Harbor.
Then there was Chen, the British consulate’s ten-year-old Chinese messenger boy in Victoria City who tried to sell him a woman.
“Do all foreigners have different colored hair?” Chen had asked. “Yours look like wet sand. I seen red and yellow too. Does it come in green and blue? Look at my hair.” The boy ran a hand through his thick dark hair. When he took his hand away, the hair fell back into place. It looked as if someone had put a bowl on his head to cut it.
Chen, a thin lad about four feet tall, was Robert Hart’s first Mandarin teacher. He spoke enough English to correct Robert when his Chinese pronunciations were off.
His first weeks in China were spent on Hong Kong Island at the consulate in Victoria City practicing simple Chinese with this boy. The desk Robert used was by a window that revealed Victoria Harbor, and Chen was usually there when he arrived.
In prior conversations, Chen had asked questions about Ireland. This time he was attempting to earn a bit more than the consulate paid. “I know woman who love see your hair,” Chen said. “Would you like meet her? She singsong girl and better than prostitute.”
When he did not respond, Chen said, “If you want more than evening with prostitute, I arrange time with suitable sing-song girl for lower price than decent girl from peasant family. You buy singsong girl as young as thirteen for mere two hundred yuan and make her your concubine. When you return to England, I sell her someone else. I not charge much and she keep you warm in winter. She also save money by not letting merchants cheat you as they do foreign devils.”
The price Chen quoted was low. Two hundred yuan was about thirty-three pounds. It shocked Robert that a woman could be bought in China as if she were a piece of furniture.
It bothered him more that he found the idea tempting. “How much would it cost to buy a respectable village girl?” he asked, disgusted with his own curiosity.
Robert had not counted on the Chinese culture seducing him so soon after his arrival. His mind wasn’t ready. He had been raised to respect women as equals—not property. He resolved to attend church services twice that Sabbath to atone for being tempted.
“Mr. Hart.” A bold voice called.
Robert turned and saw the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, standing in the doorway. His appearance was striking. He had a wide forehead with a receding hairline. What gray hair he had was thick and curly. He wore small wire framed glasses, and his features were rugged as if they had been chiseled from weathered granite. Sir Bowring was also Her British Majesty’s Minister to China and was soon to be on his way to Peking to negotiate with the Imperial government.
When Chen saw the governor, he bolted from the room.
Sir Bowring may have heard the conversation, so Robert again regretted his question about the price of a village girl. His face burned with embarrassment. The governor would think him a libertine. What a horrible first impression.
“Don’t let the boy shock you,” Sir John said. “You are no longer in England. I can see you are upset.”
“Not as much as I was when my ship reached Hong Kong,” Robert said, wanting to change the subject.
The governor said, “Are you talking about the smell of China?”
“No. There was this American shooting at targets in the water. I do not recall the man’s name. I heard he was a mercenary on his way to Shanghai. When I looked closer, I saw he was shooting at little bodies.”
“Did he have long, black hair?” the governor asked.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“It sounds as if you met Frederick Townsend Ward. He’s looking for employment in China to make a name for himself and a fortune.” The governor crossed the room to the window and looked out at the harbor. “Look at the shipping,” he said. “There are opportunities to be had in China.”
“What I saw was horrible,” Robert said, as he joined the governor at the window. “I almost lost my supper. He was shooting at three bloated infants.”
“They were girls,” the governor said. He turned from the view to face Robert. “The peasants living along the Hsi River throw them into the water to get rid of them soon after they’re born. Girls are considered a burden in China. It’s a common practice. Those who live in poverty don’t have much to go around, and feeding a female child means less food for the rest of the family. It might help to know that the infants were dead before Ward shot them.”
“How can anyone civilized do such things?”
“The Chinese don’t see it that way,” the governor said. “Just because it is shocking, don’t turn away from such lessons in life.”
He placed a hand on Robert’s shoulder. His voice softened. “Study everything around you. Go out and walk in the streets and read the shop signs. Bend over the bookstalls and read the titles. Listen to the talk of the people. If you acquire these habits, you’ll not only learn something new every time you leave your door, but you’ll always carry with you an antidote for boredom.”
“I didn’t expect to see dead infants as if they were drift wood.”
“Nevertheless,” the governor said, “take everything that happens and learn from it. In the end, you will be a better, stronger person. Don’t shy away from understanding such things even if you disagree with them.”
The stench of Ningpo brought him back to the present. It had been weeks since his conversation with Sir John Bowring in Hong Kong. However, that conversation had reminded him of the dead infants. He hoped he wouldn’t see any floating in the Yung River.
When the medieval walls of Ningpo came into sight, Robert saw a large fleet of Chinese junks. The dense forest of masts hid most of the city, but a large pagoda in the center towered above everything.
“How can they stand it?” Robert said, trying not to breathe through his nose.
“That’s China,” Patridge replied. “But to be fair, London and most large European cities aren’t much different. You must be from the countryside.”
“Ireland, not far from Belfast.” What Robert didn’t share with Patridge was that he’d left like a runaway child escaping his sins, which he’d hoped to forget but had discovered were like sticky cobwebs trapped inside his head.
Originally, he intended to stay in college for a master’s degree then follow his father’s example to become a Wesleyan pastor.
That dream ended because Robert drank too much while at college and slept with too many women.
When his father discovered his transgressions, Robert felt he had no choice but to leave and discover a means of redemption.
Besides, the eighteen-hour days spent at college studying had worn him down to the point that he saw authors creeping through the keyhole.
“I thought I detected Irish in your accent,” Patridge said.
The two men were standing on deck by the rail. The merchant was six-foot tall and had the shape of an upside-down pear with thin legs. Robert was shorter by several inches.
He had shared a cabin with Patridge, who was the principal agent of the English merchant Jardine, Matheson & Company, the most successful opium merchant in China.
Since Patridge had done most of the talking during the short voyage south from Shanghai, the conversation had been one sided and Robert had learned more of the merchant’s life than he wanted to know.
“Compared to the openness of Shanghai, the older cities like Ningpo are worse,” Patridge said, “They’re rat warrens with narrow twisted streets going everywhere without apparent purpose.”
Where Patridge saw rat warrens, Robert saw exotic beauty.
Questions lined up inside his head. Before he had a chance to ask, Patridge said, “Look over there.” He was pointing at a flagstaff flying the British ensign. “That’s our consulate with the blue tile roof.”
His hand swiveled to point out an American flag farther up river. “And over there is the American consulate.”
Then he pointed at a bend in the river. “That’s the Portuguese where you see their flag.”
Robert searched to see the places Patridge pointed out. The Erin soon reached the receiving ship-alongside of which she found her berth. There were no docks. All the ships were anchored in the river.
Before parting, Captain Patridge offered an invitation. “If you can’t get used to the city, you’re welcome to join me in July at the house I built on Zhoushan Island. I guarantee that with the arrival of the summer heat, the humidity, the sewage, the flies and the mosquitoes, you will find Ningpo unbearable. On the other hand, the sea breeze makes my summer home a refuge from refuse.” He laughed—an obnoxious sound that grated on Robert’s nerves. He was tired of hearing that laugh.
Robert glanced toward the city’s ancient wall and wondered what it was like inside. “I appreciate the invitation,” he replied, and hurried to climb down into a sampan summoned to take him ashore.
He glanced up at Patridge. “How do I find this Zhoushan Island if I decide to accept your offer?” Robert was being polite. He had no desire to spend a summer listening to Patridge’s constant prattle.
“I can tell by the expression on your face that you aren’t interested, but I’ll bet you’ll come.” Patridge was smiling. “Just wait until the boredom sets in. When you change your mind, Payne Hollister will show you the way.”
“Payne Hollister?” Robert asked.
A disgusted look flashed in the merchant’s eyes then vanished. “I’m not surprised they didn’t tell you who he was back in Hong Kong or Shanghai,” Patridge said. “That’s an example of the dammed government bureaucracy for you. They post a man and don’t tell him anything about where he is going. Hollister is the British consul here. We shared a house once. He’s cooperative. A good man.”
Robert wondered what he meant by that.
Patridge shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun and leaned over the rail. “See, he’s waiting.” He pointed.
Robert turned and saw a man wearing white trousers and a snuff colored coat standing near the water’s edge.
The British Consulate was known to the Chinese as the Yin Kwei Yamen. Yamen meant a place where a department of a government did business. As Robert was rowed ashore, he felt excitement foaming to the surface. Before reaching land, he was shocked at the sight of a woman rinsing rice in the water that carried sewage from the city.
The sampan ran up on the riverbank into the muck. The Chinese man jumped out and with an effort pulled the sampan closer to dry soil. Since Robert did not want to get his shoes wet, he added a tip to the agreed fare. The Chinese man handed back the extra money and left.
The man in the snuff colored coat walked up to him. “You must be Hart,” he said, and offered a hand to shake. “I’m Payne Hollister, the British consul here.” His hair was a dark sandy color mixed with a touch of gray, and he had blue eyes.
“How did you guess it was me?” Robert asked.
Hollister pointed toward the British Consulate as if he had not heard the question. “This way,” he said, and started walking with sharp, crisp steps.
“After I sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai on the Iona,” Robert said, “we were chased by a pirate junk, a Cantonese Comanting with an eye painted on the bow.”
He couldn’t help himself. The words poured out as if they were lonely. Patridge hadn’t been interested, and Robert wanted to share his ordeals with someone.
“That Cantonese pirate almost caught us,” he said. “However, we gave the pirates the slip. Then we spent two weeks struggling against the monsoon and ran out of food. If the captain hadn’t gone ashore and bought some peanuts and water buffalo meat, we might have starved.”
Hollister stopped and closed one eye while studying Robert with the open one. “Every time a ship arrives,” Hollister said, “I come to see. I’ve been working the consulate alone for more than a month since my last assistant quit.”
Robert wanted to know why the man he was replacing had quit but felt it wasn’t right to pry. Instead, he pointed toward the pagoda inside the city walls. “That looks interesting,” he said.
“I’ll show you around tomorrow, and I’ll give you tips on how to survive here. One thing that helps is the Christian missionaries and a handful of merchants. If we didn’t depend on one another for companionship, one could easily go crazy living among these heathens. You’re invited to join a gathering of the missionaries and their families this Friday if you’re so inclined.”
“Of course,” Robert said. “Is there a Wesleyan minister among them? If so, I want to attend his services.”
“There are Protestants and such,” Hollister replied, “but I don’t know exactly what religions are here. I do not attend services. I’ve got better things to do. You can discover more from the ministers on Friday when we cross to the other side of the river where most of them live.”
Hollister had some boys carry Robert’s luggage to the walled British compound. Once inside, Hollister said, “This is your room. Take the rest of the morning off and settle in.”
It was a small room with a fireplace opposite the bed. After Hollister left, Robert opened his trunk. There was a noise. He looked up to see two Chinese women peering through the room’s one window, which faced an alley.
They were lovely. He wanted to turn away. He didn’t think it right of him to ogle them but couldn’t help himself. He’d been without a woman far too long but was determined to stay chaste this time.
They laughed and vanished. Again, Robert was reminded of what he’d learned from the messenger boy in Hong Kong, so he stepped to the window and closed the shutters to avoid other tempting sights that might come along.
It took only a short time for Robert to unpack and put his personal things away. Besides his clothing and a few other items, there were old letters from family and close friends at home in Portadown, in the county of Armagh.
He sat on the bed and read one letter after another. He’d read some so many times that he had memorized the passages.
The letters brought tears to his eyes.
One letter from his sister Mary, the oldest of his eleven siblings, described the walk down the hill and over the bridge and along the road with the high trees on both sides that led to the church the family attended.
He’d loved that walk each Sabbath. He missed his friends and family. He especially missed Mary. Since he was the oldest and she was the second, he was closer to her than the others. He compared her laugh to Patridge’s. Her’s sounded like chimes carried by the wind and was pleasant.
His mother had offered a daguerreotype of the family to take with him, but Robert had left it behind. He’d felt guilty every time he looked at it and lost sleep from imagining what thoughts must’ve lurked behind their eyes because of his behavior in Belfast.
It didn’t take long for Robert to discover that Hollister kept a concubine. He called her his wife, but they had never officially married. She stood about five-foot and had a triangular face with a wide forehead and a small chin.
“This is Me-ta-tae,” Hollister said, matter-of-fact, as if he were pointing out his hat or cane. He patted the top of her head as if she were a pet. “Don’t mind her. She lives in the consulate with me. She makes life easier by doing the cooking and cleaning. She washes our clothes too.”
Robert soon discovered the Christian ministers in Ningpo called her ‘Hollister’s whore’ when Hollister wasn’t around.
This kind of talk bothered Robert. He’d been raised to respect women, so he made it a point to treat Me-ta-tae with courtesy to make up for the cruel things some said of her.
The city of Ningpo had been built in the tenth century during the Tang Dynasty. The river protected it on one side, and it was encircled with medieval walls and a deep moat. There was a lake inside the walls with a canal leading through an open gate under the wall that allowed small boats in from the river.
When Hollister took Robert on the tour, he found the streets, houses, wood carved doorways and windows intricate—a hint of a culture he was eager to unwrap layer by layer.
“They live like rats,” Hollister said. “The cities were planned without logic. The streets are like a twisted maze. It’s easy to get lost.”
Robert didn’t find the city a rat warren. He found it fascinating.
Later, when he was alone, he explored the noisy business district along the main east-west street. It was a jumble of storefronts and noodle shops hung with glazed duck carcasses. Dry good shops, job printers, and bakeries were crowded together. Pharmacies sold roots and herbs, powdered deer antlers, withered frogs and snake glands. Each narrow alley was the center of a different industry—one creating things out of bamboo and another making lanterns. It was all packed into a ghetto about a mile and a half across.
A merchant from Shanghai, a friend of Hollister’s, came to visit, and he wasn’t alone. He arrived at the consulate with four Chinese concubines, and it was obvious he was proud of his acquisitions.
To his consternation, Robert found he was having trouble keeping his eyes off the girls. He didn’t care for their painted faces, but they had beautiful black lacquer hair and a delicate bone structure.
“Where did you meet them?” Robert asked.
The American was lanky with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs. He had huge ears and large green eyes. He looked ungainly like a scarecrow that had escaped from a cornfield. He reminded Robert of Ichabod Crane, a character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
“I didn’t meet them,” the American replied. “Women are traded here like goods. If you want one, I’ll introduce you to the matchmaker. She specializes in getting women for foreigners. You can pick from Korean girls or girls from Siam or Vietnam. If you are willing to pay a premium, she claims she can get you a Han Chinese from a respectable family.
“My girls come from Kansu province in the east where the peasants sell their daughters to avoid starvation. All four were virgins when I paid for them. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Fascinating,” Robert said. His education of China was continuing quickly. The messenger boy in Hong Kong was only the primer.
“I’ll introduce you to the old hag, and she’ll hook you up. What you get depends on how much you are willing to pay. That way, you will have a girl to keep your bed warm. It gets cold here in winter.”
“Let me think on it,” he replied, wondering why everyone considered Chinese girls marvelous bed warmers. Was that all a woman was good for in China? If that was true, it was a horrible fate.
“No problem,” the American said. “Ningpo isn’t that far from Shanghai. When you are ready, make a trip back. Meanwhile save enough so you can buy a pair of lovebirds. That way you will have one sleeping on either side of you. If my girls don’t please me, they know I’ll send them back to Kansu and starvation.”
He was glad when the American turned toward Hollister. From the heat he felt spreading across his face, he must have been beet red to the tips of his ears. He wasn’t sure if he was disgusted or embarrassed.
When Robert mentioned that he wanted to employ a Chinese man to teach him Mandarin, Hollister said, “Don’t waste your money or time, Hart. They will cheat you and you’ll learn nothing. When I first arrived here, I hired one. He confused me. Just follow my example. I make do. Besides, it is their place to understand us. We don’t have to understand them.”
Robert disagreed and hired a teacher anyway. He made a point of not telling Hollister. The cost was seven yuan a month, about one British pound.
However, the teacher wasn’t that good. He didn’t have much patience, but he told Robert the reason the Chinese built cities the way they did.
When Robert first asked, the teacher looked over his glasses and studied his student’s face as if he were stupid. “The answer is simple,” the teacher said. “The streets are narrow and crooked to keep evil spirits out and confuse them when they get inside.”
This was Robert’s first lesson that the Chinese were superstitious.
“It would help,” his teacher said, “if you were to buy a concubine and study the language with her.”
Learning Mandarin turned into a lonely and tedious task. It didn’t help that his teacher snapped at him when he mispronounced words. He was also assigned to help the ship captains and European merchants do business with the local Chinese Maritime Customs House in Ningpo. This became a challenge as he hadn’t mastered a rudimentary knowledge of the language, but he had no choice. It was his job. He was determined to make the best of it and didn’t complain.
Somehow, he managed to translate between the English merchants and the Chinese officials, who spoke no English. It was as if he’d been tossed in the fire and had to avoid being burned. It didn’t take long to guess why the last interpreter must have quit.
Two weeks after arriving in Ningpo, a Chinese servant named Guan-jiah was assigned to him.
Guan-jiah told Robert he’d been born near the end of 1836, which according to the Chinese calendar was the year of the Monkey.
He spoke clumsy English but understood more. He was a bony, short man with a turned-up nose and eyes set far apart. He kept his skull shaved except for a tail of hair called a queue growing from the back of his head. He had long ear lobes, which he was proud of because they resembled Buddha’s ear lobes.
The Chinese believed this was a sign that a person was born to be kind-natured, and he was sometimes too agreeable. He demonstrated a deep desire for knowledge and proved to have an excellent memory.
“This servant of yours is an odd lot,” Hollister said in a low voice when Guan-jiah was doing chores outside, “but maybe that’s because he applied to become a servant inside the Forbidden City when he turned thirteen.”
“What do you mean?” Robert asked. “How does applying for a job make you odd?”
Guan-jiah was hard working and seemed honest. His behavior had not marked him as strange. His voice sounded like a girl’s, but what was strange about that? He was still young and hadn’t grown into his man’s voice yet.
Hollister smirked. “You have much to learn, Hart. You can’t apply for a job inside the Forbidden City unless you’re a eunuch.”
“No!” he said, shocked. How could Hollister say something so vicious? “Do you mean Guan-jiah had his testicles removed?” Robert did not want to believe it was true.
Hollister nodded. “He lost more than that. They chopped off his member too. He’s flat as a woman down there. He didn’t get the job, so he came home and learned English instead and started working as a servant for foreign merchants. This job is a move up for him—more pay.”
“Why would a man castrate himself to get a job? That’s madness!”
“Live here long enough and you’ll see many crazy things that make no sense. I have better things to do than talk about your servant. He is odd, because he chopped his member off before he turned thirteen. One thing to learn is that you should never trust the Chinese. What kind of person in his right mind would do something like that?”
Robert later learned that what Guan-jiah had done for his family was a sign of piety and respect for his elders. He’d sacrificed his manhood to help his family survive. When he failed to get the job in the Forbidden City, he’d gone to work for foreigners. What he was doing to help his grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts and siblings caused him to gain face for the sacrifice but lose face, because he worked for foreigners.
At first, he found this strange, but once he learned the true meaning behind piety and gaining or losing face, it was easier to accept. Guan-jiah was willing to sacrifice for his family. Robert respected that.
“Look, Master,” Guan-jiah said, before Robert’s first month in Ningpo ended, “if you want to go out and buy anything, I will help you save money. Tell me what it is you want and let me go to the shop and buy it for the Chinese price. If you try, they will charge you as much as ten times what I will pay.” He smiled a pleasant smile that reminded Robert of one lass he had seduced in Belfast.
Robert stared at Guan-jiah thinking that he wasn’t exactly a man but was closer to being like a woman without breasts. If Guan-jiah had let his hair grow long instead of shaving his head almost bald, he would have been cute.
The eunuch’s skin was smooth like a woman’s and his eyelashes appeared feminine. Robert found this thinking strange and made it a point to avoid his servant as much as possible for the next few days. Eventually, he forgot that for an instant he’d thought the young man oddly attractive.
He decided to test Guan-jiah to make sure he was honest. He went to the shop without telling his servant and found out what the asking price was for a foreigner. Then he sent Guan-jiah.
After the servant proved himself, he let the eunuch do the shopping. If Guan-jiah made a small profit for himself, that was acceptable.
As the years went by, Guan-jiah proved his loyalty and worth many times. He stayed with Robert to the end.
On rare occasions, when Hollister had someone in for dinner, usually one of the merchants such as the American that looked like Ichabod Crane, the visitor often arrived with a concubine.
This reminded Robert of the easy pleasures this alien land offered—thoughts that bothered him. It didn’t help that his Mandarin teacher suggested several times that a concubine would help him learn the language faster.
This triggered wild, erotic dreams where he had two or more of the delicate, dark-haired women in his bed. Having such dreams made him think he was about to lose control and left him feeling as if he were a carpet that had the dirt beat out of it in Ireland only to be walked on and soiled once in China.
He didn’t want others to see him as one who was into lasciviousness even in his youth’s worst agony. He wanted others to see him as a God loving man who worked hard by day and treated others with respect and courtesy.
However, his nature, as he understood later, wanted to believe in love like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but without the tragedy. To old China hands, such as Captain Patridge, such thinking made Robert into an old-fashioned nut, or to the Chinese a cooked seed, meaning someone who lived in a fantasy world.
In time, his perspective underwent a gradual change. Eventually, when he saw a pair of love-ducks idling in the waterweeds in spring, he admired them for what they had.
On one snowy night, he saw by the light of the moon the reflection of a white mountain sandwiched between clouds making it look transparent, and he was moved almost to tears believing it was God’s way to show him love—nature was man’s best mentor, as the Chinese said. It just took a practiced eye to see it.
Robert often walked alone in the evenings along the muddy boat-trackers’ footpath beside the river. Western ships sat at anchor with lanterns glowing from aft windows.
Those lights floating above the water created a scene that was poetically beautiful—almost as if the world had turned into a setting full of quiet and passionate people and the boats into fairy tale castles.
Then at other times, he heard the pirates and the war junks in the river firing cannons at one another, and the violence shattered his tranquil mood.
Early in March 1855, Hollister moved from the consulate. “I built a thirty-eight-foot sloop for a price I could never get outside China,” he said, “so I’m going to live on it.”
Robert wondered what it was going to be like living alone in the consulate. Of course, he had Guan-jiah and Hollister during the days, but at night there was only silence. Robert grew up in a house full of people and even at college he had his fellow students as company.
“Have you christened your boat?” Robert asked.
“And waste a good bottle of wine.” Hollister laughed. “There’s no need for that. It’s called The Dawn. I will keep my sloop anchored in the river with the rest of them. It’s the only way to escape Ningpo—its stench, its smothering walls and prying eyes.”
It was the way Hollister said those last two words that caused Robert to suspect he knew what the missionaries were saying about him behind his back.
“He’s going to hell living with that whore.” Robert heard one pastor say.
“If he gives her up and asks Christ for forgiveness, he still has a chance for redemption,” another replied. “But nothing can save her. She’s doomed.”
“I disagree,” a third pastor said. “If she takes Christ into her life, she will be forgiven.”
Robert’s father was a pastor, so he wasn’t sure what he should think. He believed that Christ was not as judgmental as some of the ministers thought. After all, He’d said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ when he’d defended a woman accused of adultery.
Robert had trouble sleeping. During the long nights, every sound in the empty consulate woke him. Even the silence bothered him. He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling for hours. Noisy crickets would have been better than this.
At times, he saw things in the dark. When he got up to confront the phantoms, they evaporated. He wondered if he were going insane.
In desperation, he convinced Hollister to play chess with him in the early evenings and attempted to lead their conversations away from China and the topics the missionaries usually brought up. His goal was to keep Hollister there so the nights wouldn’t seem so long.
“Have you read any Dickens?” Robert asked one rainy night. “Oliver Twist is an interesting story about the workhouse and child labor and the recruitment of children as criminals. I was wondering what you think of the hypocrisy it reveals through Dickens’ sarcasm and dark humor?”
“Do you find it wrong that the children should be used as criminals?” Hollister asked in a challenging tone.
Robert didn’t understand why Hollister was so upset. “Isn’t it obvious?” he replied. “Children should be raised properly and be taught the virtues and the word of God. They shouldn’t be slaves risking their lives for the betterment of some rogue.”
“Well, I haven’t read Oliver Twist, but I believe it’s better to be working for thieves than driven to an honest death in the workhouse where you never get enough to eat. I should know. My mother died soon after my birth, and my father died when I was six. I spent several months in a workhouse before I found my auntie.”
“You were in the workhouse?” Robert replied, shocked. “You’re fortunate you had a loving aunt to rescue you from such a horror.”
“She didn’t rescue me. I escaped and found her. She was my father’s sister. Until I knocked on her door, I’d never seen her before. My father didn’t approve of her. He believed in God, and she didn’t. She was kind enough to take me in. After I finished my education, she arranged this position in the British consulate through an acquaintance. She was good to me—better than my father was. He taught me nothing but verses from the Bible and when I didn’t learn fast enough, I’d feel the back of his boney hand.”
Robert attempted getting the conversation back to books. “You should read Oliver Twist, but since you haven’t, what books have you read?”
Hollister snorted. “I read The North China Herald and the London Times when it comes in,” he replied. “I don’t have time for books. However, I do have time for a good game of cards or chess, and our games would be more entertaining if we wagered money. I’ll match you five yuan for each game.”
“Five!” Robert said. He’d never gambled before. “Let’s start with one yuan.” He was willing to risk that small amount. After all, he beat Hollister three out of four games.
After they started gambling, Hollister paid more attention to what he was doing, and he won half the games. Once money was involved, the conversation dried up but Hollister stayed later.
When he won, Hollister scraped the money off the table with a cackle of glee. “I’m going to take all your money,” he said. “That last move of yours was stupid. Now I’ve got you.”
Hollister had a few traits in common with one of Dickens’ other characters, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge from the Christmas Carol. When he lost, he cast dark glances at Robert as if he were cheating. That made Robert feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t stop him from playing his best. Besides, he found the man’s disagreeable character better than being alone.
Several times over the next few months, Hollister sailed away for days at a time. When he did this, Robert had conflicting emotions. On one hand, he envied Hollister for living as he wanted—something he was sure he’d never copy.
However, it bothered him when Hollister left without letting him know, and the empty nights grew longer.
When mornings arrived, it was a treat to have Guan-jiah walk through the gate to start his workday. Robert taught him how to play chess and occasionally managed to get him to stay late for a game.
Since all but one of the missionaries lived across the river and seldom came into Ningpo, days passed where he didn’t see one English soul. He spent his evenings reading the old letters, which turned into a dull ache that took away his energy and enthusiasm for the next day’s work.
He didn’t think he could have felt lonelier if he’d been the last penguin in Antarctica. He reconsidered Patridge’s invitation to spend the summer on Zhoushan Island. The opium merchant’s noxious laugh and endless chatter would be better than this.
One Wednesday before sundown, Me-ta-tae visited looking unhappy. She wore black silk pants and a deep-red, patterned blouse with five bats flying above several lotus blossoms. Her hair was tied back into a bun with a silver metal pin that had dangling crystals hanging from it holding the bun together. This exposed her appealing pixie ears, slender neck and delicate bone structure. Her skin looked pale and as smooth as creamy porcelain.
Robert couldn’t help himself. His fingers tingled with the desire to explore her body.
Intending to cheer her up, he hurried to the consulate garden and cut a dozen dark-red roses.
Her eyes fluttered and she attempted to hide a smile when he presented them to her.
“The weather is perfect for the roses,” he said, seeing this as an opportunity to practice his Mandarin. He also wanted to keep her longer. She was better company than Guan-jiah. “The color contrasts well with your skin.”
She touched one petal. “The dew still clings to it,” she said, and smiled. One drop clung to a fingertip, and she examined it as if it were a precious jewel.
The sight of her doing this reminded Robert of his sister Mary when something made her exceptionally happy such as seeing interesting shapes in the clouds.
“This season brings out the best vegetables they sell in the market,” she said. Her eyes met his. The way she looked at him made his stomach ache. He hid his hands behind his back before he reached for her. He stared at her lips imagining what they would feel like against his, and his thoughts tangled into knots.
“I have seen you walking alone beside the river in the late afternoons,” she said.
“I enjoy those walks.” He managed to get out, knowing exactly why he was feeling nervous. “I miss your cooking.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and his Mandarin was improving but wasn’t good enough for a conversation with depth to it.
He didn’t want her to leave.
“The prices are better this time of year,” she said. Her eyes avoided his. He watched her struggle to keep her shy smile under control. It was obvious she was enjoying this as much as he was.
“The vegetables further south are of a better quality than here,” she said. “Tell me what you want, and I will cook for you. Maybe you do not like walking alone beside the river. Maybe you would like me to join you.”
Robert imagined Me-ta-tae walking beside him and cooking in the kitchen. When she had lived in the consulate with Hollister, she’d done all the cooking. When Hollister had moved out, the good food went with him.
“I’m pleased that you came for a visit,” he said. “How is it on The Dawn with Mr. Hollister?”
Her expression turned sour. Robert regretted driving her smile away.
“I hate it!” she said. “I don’t like living on a boat.”
Robert shifted from foot to foot. “Is there anything the consulate can do for you?” he asked.
She stamped a foot. “I’m bored and lonely.”
“I understand,” he replied, and allowed one hand to escape from behind his back and touched Me-ta-tae’s bare arm above her wrist with his fingertips. Her skin was soft and inviting. He imagined her living in the consulate with him and saw her walking naked through the empty rooms. He blushed at his thoughts and jerked his hand back as if burned.
“Mr. Hollister won’t allow me to entertain my friends on his boat. And when he loses at horses or cards, he yells and hits me. He scares me when he does that.” She pulled up a sleeve to reveal a bruise on her upper arm.
It was difficult for Robert to believe that Hollister had hit her. He was supposed to be a gentleman. Robert was sure that the government did not tolerate such behavior. The bruise must have been from an accident.
When she left, he bitterly felt the isolation and realized that he’d come to China without much thought. That night was full of lusty dreams. In the morning when he awoke, he discovered the blankets twisted around his legs, and he had an enormous erection.
The next day, Robert spent most of the time thinking of his passion, which overpowered reason and conscience. He saw his life as a Christian full of constant warfare, because he had to struggle just to deny lust. However, it was a necessary fight to live soberly, righteously and godly.
That Saturday, Guan-jiah said that Me-ta-tae was back and wanted to see him.
He invited her inside. As night arrived, they sat before the fire in his room and he served jasmine tea. The look on her face told him that something was bothering her. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“I’m worried that Mr. Hollister is going to abandon me,” she said, as tears filler her eyes.
William Lay, who Robert had stayed with while in Shanghai on the way to Ningpo was the assistant to the British Vice-Counsel. Lay had told Robert what happened to women who lived with foreigners.
Hart couldn’t stand the thought of Me-ta-tae becoming a whore for sailors. “Hollister would be stupid to abandon you,” he said. “I’d never do that.”
He regretted his words immediately but said nothing to change their meaning. Instead, he imagined that Hollister would sail away, and she’d be his woman. After all, she wasn’t Hollister’s wife in the Christian way. She was his concubine. He paid for her like buying a hen. It wasn’t like adultery.
“I’d treat you better,” he added, and felt the heat in his face as it turned red. He wondered if he had enough to buy her.
Me-ta-tae’s lower lip trembled.
Without thinking of the consequences, Robert took her into his arms. She looked at him with eyes full of tears.
Hot blood rushed into his head and he kissed her neck. The warm scent of her skin was intoxicating. His hands found their way under her blouse, and he caressed her breasts.
They moved to his bed and their clothing ended on the floor. Robert sensed movement outside his half-open door but ignored it. Touching her naked body excited him beyond his self-control and his resolve to stay abstinent evaporated.
Soon after he entered her, it was over.
Avoiding his eyes, she slipped off the bed and dressed.
“Don’t go.” There was a scratchy, pitiful sound in his voice as if he were begging. He couldn’t stand it. “Tell Hollister I’ll buy you if he doesn’t want you.”
He heard a scuffling noise outside his door as if someone was hurrying away. Then Me-ta-tae left.
He felt confused and empty. It wasn’t as if she were the first woman he’d been with, but that thought didn’t stop him from feeling cheap. With her abrupt departure, he discovered that he had a yearning for something more, but he couldn’t put words to it.
The next morning Guan-jiah came to tell Robert that Hollister was outside asking for him. “He’s angry, Master. I don’t recommend speaking to him. Not after last night.”
He felt terrible. She must have told Hollister what happened. He despised himself. Me-ta-tae had come to him for comfort. He couldn’t deny that she was desirable, and he was a bull in heat. It was a mutual act, but it was still a defeat.
He didn’t want to face Hollister, so he said, “Make excuses for me, Guan-jiah. Send him away.”
Robert felt as if he were a coward but what other choice did he have if he wanted to avoid a fight. Jealousy was unpredictable and dangerous, and Hollister had every right.
Guan-jiah nodded and left the room.
“What do you mean he isn’t here?” Hollister yelled. Robert heard every word from where he was hiding behind the door. “Not only does he cheat at chess, but he’s trying to steal my woman too. You tell him I’ll be back.”
Robert was mortified. He never cheated at chess. How could Hollister say such a horrible thing? And he wasn’t stealing his woman. She had come to him willingly, and he wanted to buy her.
Hollister didn’t return to work for a week. Then he quit his job with the consulate and sailed away.
When Me-ta-tae went with him, Robert felt more despondent. The affair left him feeling guilty. The fact that Hollister quit surprised him. The man never had enough money because of his gambling, and he lived beyond his means.
Maybe his reason for leaving was to avoid his creditors. Maybe it had nothing to do with Robert seducing his concubine.
Later, Guan-jiah said, “Master, do not think of that woman. Me-ta-tae is not good. She seduced the previous interpreter, and Master Hollister was angry with him too. They had a big fight. The next day that foreigner was gone. I followed her once and discovered she was having sex with one of the merchants too.”
Robert looked at him sharply and remembered the noise in the hallway. He’d been watching. He started to scold Guan-jiah but fought back his anger. Could it be that his servant was living vicariously through watching others have intercourse, because he couldn’t?
He kept silent out of pity. Despite such depravity, Guan-jiah had a good heart. Robert refused to judge him. What would he have done?
“Master,” Guan-jiah said, “it is best to take life easy and to find your way across the river by searching out stepping-stones hidden just below the surface. Nothing is wrong with falling and getting soaked sometimes.”
By mid-June, Robert could scarcely breathe because of the sultry heat. He spent twelve hours a day studying Chinese, several more hours working at the consulate and a few attempting to sleep. The mosquitoes made it impossible. He recalled Captain Patridge’s invitation and felt it was a good way to escape.
On July fourth in 1855, he received a letter from his friend William Lay in Shanghai informing Robert that he had been nominated to the position of provisional assistant in the consulate with a salary of 270 pounds a year, about twelve hundred Chinese yuan.
Robert determined that whatever his income, one-tenth would go to charitable and religious purposes. It was his way to atone for what had happened between him and Me-ta-tae.
He had now spent enough time in China to earn some vacation time, so he left Ningpo during the hottest part of summer to stay with Captain Patridge not realizing how much that decision was going to change his life.
WHERE TO BUY