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A Victorian Gentleman in Nineteenth Century China
on March 31, 2008
My Splendid Concubine is the story of Sir Robert Hart, a nineteenth century British consular and customs official who, over several decades, grew into a position of unprecedented respect and trust in China. The story opens in 1908 with the Empress Dowager granting an audience in the Forbidden City to an elderly Hart, Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, but the novel is really about Hart's early days in China as a young interpreter.
Hart travels to China in 1854 seeking to redeem himself after a shameful episode of wenching and carousing at college that embarrassed his family. He first meets Sir John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong, who advises him to study everything around him in an effort to understand the Chinese and learn something new everyday. This is the only advice of its kind he receives from his own people, for Hart discovers that the rest of the Westerners view the Chinese culture with disdain and superiority. His first employer, for example, chastises him for trying to learn Mandarin, saying, "It is their place to understand us. We don't have to understand them."
While most of the British and American officials dismiss the Chinese as superstitious heathens, there is one part of the Chinese culture they are quick to assimilate: the taking of concubines. Hart finds it repugnantly hypocritical that his fellow countrymen should hold so little respect for the culture while indulging their own desires in a manner that Victorian society would condemn. He notes that, "on one hand the Europeans and British were shoving Christianity's message of brotherly love down the Chinese collective throat with the barrel of a rifle. At the same time foreign merchants, mostly British, were selling opium to the populace." Hart hopes to rise above such prejudice and lack of ethics, but finds himself sorely tempted by repeated opportunities to sample a service that the Chinese take for granted and the Westerners are perfectly happy to exploit.
And then Hart meets Ayaou, a fiery and courageous girl from the lowest sector of Chinese society, the boat people. Their startling and memorable introduction - which I will not reveal here - sparks a passion that takes the young Englishman by storm. Hart is willing to bankrupt himself to buy Ayaou from her father, who is selling her to provide for the rest of his family, but circumstances whisk her away and Hart finds himself compelled to buy her sister, rather than let the younger girl fall into undesirable hands.
Suddenly Hart owns a concubine, although not the woman he loves, and he is caught between his own Christian beliefs and the worshipful attention of young Shao-mei, who desperately wants to earn the love of her master. And what of Ayaou, who has been sold to the violent and unstable American mercenary soldier Frederick Townsend Ward? What ethics will Hart be willing to compromise in order to get her back?
Lloyd Lofthouse has created a rich cast of characters against the exotic and fascinating backdrop of nineteenth century China. Young Robert Hart is a sympathetic character who earnestly seeks to understand the Chinese culture in order to win acceptance there, and to find peace within his own soul. As Hart learns, so does the reader, for the author has skillfully woven lessons of the Chinese culture into the plot and setting. The girls, Ayaou and Shao-mei, are individually defined as characters and truly believable as sisters: sensually mature, playfully young, one moment presenting a united sisterly front, and the next moment squabbling with jealousy. And I have not even touched upon the pirates, the mercenaries, the opium dealers, and Hart's philosophizing eunuch servant! Don't pass up this debut novel by an author who will surely continue Robert Hart's saga and legendary career in a second novel.