An Irishman in China

The Book of the Week is “An Irishman in China” by Zhao Changtian; Yang Shuhui and Yunqin, translators, published in 2014. This is the career story of Robert Hart.

Hart, originally from Northern Ireland, visited various ports of the world via ship before settling in Shanghai, China in autumn 1854 as an interpreter, a non-official member of the British consular service. In his early twenties, he started at a time of anti-government rebellion by two groups, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and Small Sword Society. British merchants– angry about having to pay taxes when other nations’ traders, such as France, America and Portugal didn’t– were supplying the rebels with arms. Coastal cities produced ample rice, silk and tea. Unsurprisingly, there was corruption at the customs house.

Hart stayed at the British Consulate in Ningbo. He hired a cleaning boy, cook and an English tutor who taught him the Chinese language. Employed by the Chinese government, he moved up through the ranks serving Western merchants in the customs department. In March 1858, he was transferred to Guangzhou because Anglo-French forces attacked the city. He was skilled in diplomacy, and through the years, made friends in high places in the Chinese government. As for his social life, a colleague told him he could get a mail-order bride of sorts, a non-prostitute who was “…trained in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.” Nevertheless, he met someone on his own, and started a family.

Read the book to learn of Hart’s personal and professional relationships over the course of half a century; how he protected British interests in China and had an impact on China’s foreign policy, especially during armed conflicts among its own peoples and other nations.