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Why does a young man of nineteen run away from the misdeeds of his youth, and how does running away change him? My Splendid Concubine is about many things, and one of those things is the clash between two cultures--the west (Christian Europe) and the east (China influenced by Confucius and Taoism).  

When Robert Hart arrives in China, he is confronted with those differences at almost every turn, and what he learns and how he deals with it molds him into a unique individual that has intrigued historians ever since.

What would you have done in Robert’s shoes?

 

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Describe Robert Hart.  What did he do while attending college in Belfast that drove him away from Ireland, and why does this bother him? How much of an influence did his father, Henry Hart, a Wesleyan preacher, have on Robert decision to leave home, and how much did that influence add to Robert’s mental struggles and anguish about women?

In the first chapter of My Splendid Concubine, Robert Hart meets with the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi shortly before he leaves China for the last time.  When Robert looks in the mirror on page one, he sees "eyes with deep lines of sadness etched around them like a parched alluvial plain scarred from ancient catastrophes.”  To what extent does his belief in God and Christianity and the events in My Splendid Concubine contribute to that description?

  • In chapter seven on page ninety-two, Robert is having a conversation with Ayaou shortly before she is to be sold. “I don’t hate those men,” she said, shaking her head. “My father hates what he does to feed his family. He has to sell us. He’s not the only man in the village who does that. He has to treat us like hens and fish in the market. He can’t afford to be soft hearted.” Tears glittered in her eyes. . . . “I want you to be my master. Have you got money?”  “Not enough to compete with men like Ward and Patridge.” How does Robert react to Ayaou’s words? How much of his reaction can be attributed to his Victorian upbringing and the religion of his family?

n chapter eight, Captain Patridge sells Ayaou’s younger sister Shao-mei to Robert to be his concubine. To Robert it doesn’t seem right, but if he doesn’t accept her, she will suffer a worse fate as Captain Patridge’s property. “I’ll keep you company.” Shao-mei joined him. Her slender young body molded to his, and she buried her face against his chest. He pushed her away.  What is driving the conflict that is tearing Robert apart with moral anguish in this scene? What does he eventually think to himself to justify accepting all that Shao-mei has to offer? What does the final result of this encounter tell you about Robert?

  • In chapter twelve Robert has been reunited with Ayaou, his first real love. She touched his hair. “I love your funny accent. You are everything an ordinary Chinese man thinks ugly--big nose, hairy body, and pink skin, but I can’t have enough of you. In China it’s stupid for a woman to dream, but I dared to dream of belonging to you. I wouldn’t mind being your foot warmer in the winter and a cool breeze for you in the summer.” She cast her eyes downward. “ I miss my sister, Shao-mei. It was bad luck that she had to be sold to a man like Captain Patridge.”  Robert stiffened. He’d forgotten Shao-mei. He felt heat filling his face and knew that it was turning red. Why couldn’t he hide such a response when he felt guilt or shame? What has Robert done to feel guilt or shame? What is it about Robert that causes him to feel this way in the first place? After Ayaou discovers that her sister, Shao-mei, belongs to Robert, what does Ayaou’s reaction tell you about her as a person?

In chapter thirteen Robert risks his life and the fate of Ayaou in a confrontation with a dangerous mercenary and soldier of fortune. Ward sat. “You’re a fool paying that amount. I’ll bet she’s not a virgin now. Besides, she’s a boat girl. She’s scum not worth the black shine on your boots. You can get three dozen virgins for five hundred pounds. You could open a whorehouse and make a fortune.” Why is Robert willing to pay such a large sum of money to buy Ayaou from Ward, the Devil Soldier, and risk making such a dangerous man his enemy? What did you learn about Robert in this chapter?

  • In chapter fifteen Shao-mei says to Robert, “Wu Hei Nee”, and Robert doesn’t know what that means. When Guan-jiah tells him in a later chapter what this literally means and also what Shao-mei was trying to say to him, Robert is confused, because it doesn’t make sense to him. What does Robert learn about the Chinese culture from this event, and how does this change him?

In chapter sixteen Robert is faced with a conundrum that challenges his Christian beliefs to the core.  “You are selfish, Robert. Your passion is like an ocean. Why not spare a little of that for my sister? It is all she is asking for. Would you acknowledge that I sometimes can’t keep up with you? You want me three times a night, and sometimes that is not enough. Why can’t you let Shao-mei take some pressure off me?”  “Ayaou, please understand that I wouldn’t care to be loyal to you if I didn’t love you!”  “Shao-mei does not care if you love her, Robert,” Ayaou shot back. “She only wants to make you happy.  What you give her she will treasure for the rest of her life. I am sure that she can never get this kind of love from any other man. I pity my sister and me too.”  This conversation with Ayaou signals the beginning of a change in Robert. This is a pivotal moment in the novel. How long will it take for Robert to change, and what does he plan to do to facilitate that change? In chapter seventeen how does Tee Lee Ping, Robert's new Mandarin teacher, play a role in making that happen?

  • Cantonese and Portuguese pirates are fighting each other in the streets and alleys of Ningpo, and no one is safe in the city. On page 221, Guan-jiah, a eunuch and Robert’s servant, refuses to leave his master’s side during this dangerous time. “Guan-jiah, you are not my slave. You are my employee. We do not own slaves in Ireland.”  Guan-jiah stared at his feet and shuffled them. “Master, an astrologer told me that we were tied together. Wherever you go, I will follow. In that way I am your slave even if you do not own me like an animal?”  Since arriving in Ningpo, Guan-jiah has been Robert’s faithful Chinese servant shopping for Robert so he isn’t cheated by the local merchants and offering Robert sage advice about life.  How has their relationship developed from the beginning of My Splendid Concubine when they first met on page thirty-one, and where do you think that relationship is going? What other things have you learned about Guan-jiah? What does Guan-jiah’s behavior tell you about him as a person?

The idea of being with more than one woman didn’t sound as bad as it had a few months earlier. After all, he was in China--not Ireland or England with its stifling morality. There was an old saying. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do.’ Well, Robert was in China. What takes place in chapter eighteen that causes Robert to have this change of mind? Compare China and its Confucian ethics to Christianity. How are they different? How are they the same?

 

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