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May 8, 2008

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City Weekend Book Review: My Splendid Concubine

Author: Lloyd Lofthouse

Reviewed by: Lee Mack, Deputy Managing Editor

May 8, 2008, 9:14 AM by cityweekend


Robert Hart is not the most famous foreigner ever to live in China. That honor either goes to Dashan, the Canadian comic, or Mateo Ricci, the 16th century Jesuit missionary who was one of the first Westerners to translate Confucius. Nevertheless, of them all, Hart, who is known as the architect of modern China, might be the most important.

Lloyd Lofthouse’s book takes up the early years of Hart in China, after his initial appointment in Hong Kong, but before he becomes Inspector General of the China Maritime Customs. Hart hasn’t learned Chinese yet, and he is in the midst of major culture shock. He cringes at the sight of dead babies floating in Hong Kong harbor, he lusts after every Chinese woman he sees. He is, in short, something of a guilt-ridden mess.

This is quite a departure from Hart’s popular image as “the constructive side of foreign imperialism.” In this book, he’s not the man who builds railroads and transparent accounting procedures, he’s the guy who sleeps with his wife’s boss and throws in with a notorious British opium smuggler in order to buy off a mercenary general who wants to kill him over a concubine

The book is surprisingly racy and quite explicit in its sexual content, of which there is much. For most of the book, Hart tries to come to grips with the fact he is living with two teenage sisters, both of whom want to sleep with him. It’s a peek inside the mind of a white dude who is the severest grip of yellow fever.

Hart’s sexual obsession leads him to his now-famous mastery of all things Chinese. In order to escape from guilt, he dons Chinese robes, gets fluent in the language and familiarizes himself with representative pieces from the various epochs of Chinese literature. He swaps gossip with local guys at the bathhouse, he does Spring Festival with his Chinese in-laws. He goes to the Chinese opera. In the end, he becomes a first-rate Sinologist

What makes this story something other than a cliched period piece is the fact that Lofthouse drew his narrative from fragments of Hart’s own diaries which Hart himself was supposed to have burned before his death. Hart was a prodigious correspondent, and the 40 odd volumes of letters he left behind became a foundational document for modern Sinologists-including John King Fairbank-who sought reasons for modern China’s highly problematic entrance into modernity.

If even half of Lofthouse’s narrative is true, it’s a stunning work that enmeshes imperialism, modernity, miscegenation and plain old desire in a sweaty matrix of destruction and painful birth.


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