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Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine by Lloyd…
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Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine

by Lloyd Lofthouse

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At stuffy Shanghai cocktail parties and underground Beijing book clubs taking place back in 2008, Chinese literati were as scandalized as they were (unadmittedly) titillated by American author Lloyd Lofthouse’s new novel, ‘My Splendid Concubine’ and the lascivious adventures therein of real-life 19th century China expatriate Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911) and his concubines.

Certainly concubinage was as commonplace a practice in that age as it was to, say, smoke opium or hold large-scale rebellions; nothing to get red in the face about. Typically in denial of its own past, however, China’s Communist-run newspapers publicly denounced Lofthouse’s ‘Concubine’ as “little more than the author’s own fantasy and Asian fetish.”

Conversely, Sinologists and historical fiction fans from Peking to Poukipsee who saw past ‘Concubine’s’ prurient veil applauded Lofthouse for penning a book as scholarly as it was entertaining in its depiction of Robert Hart, the true “Godfather of China’s Modernism,” a title the Chinese face-savingly prefer to confer on one of their own: Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s new economic reform.

Indeed, this may be the real reason why Lofthouse’s book was ostracized. Half a century after Hart’s death, the Communist Party put the Irish “imperialist” on trial for his “intimate corrupted life,” conveniently forgetting the fact that Sir Robert Hart, an advisor to the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was responsible for introducing to China such modern conveniences as a railway network, postal service and a standardized education system.

- LUST? CAUTION! -

For its academic accuracy as well as its honesty, ‘My Splendid Concubine’ was hailed “sleeper hit of ‘08” and went on to receive honorable mentions at book festivals across the globe. Rather than resting on his literary laurels, Lofthouse instead returned to the decade’s worth of files he had accumulated while researching the life and times of Robert Hart. A year later he has emerged with a sequel, ‘Our Hart.’

When we last saw our hero, or should we say, our Hart, 19th century China was being raped, ravaged and rebelled against from every direction. South China has been taken over by European merchants determined to turn the entire country into one big opium den, British military patrolling the Eastern shore are forcing the emperor to pay reparations “for wars China lost but didn’t start,” whilst Christian fanatics called Taiping are waging bloody hell against imperialism.

Enter a broken, distraught man who has just witnessed the rape and murder of one of his two beloved concubines. It is no secret who the perpetrator is, but instead of having the means or status to avenge his love, Robert Hart must “swallow his hate” and go into hiding with his remaining concubine, Ayaou, for as it turns out, it was she who was his nemesis’s intended victim. Some hero!

Robert Hart, as sketched by Lofthouse, was never, in fact, meant to be a hero. He is an admittedly flawed man with weaknesses, vices and sins: he is not above cold-blooded revenge; the “childlike bodies” of Chinese women “excite him”; he even steals concubines from his friends (“He didn’t know what was worse – having syphilis or another man hating him”).

But Hart’s coming-of-age during his riotous first years in China, underscored by the tragic loss of one of his concubines, has now turned the boy into a man, and a bitter one at that, since “replacing the pain with anger made him feel like a thief and a liar.”

Just as our protagonist has matured, complete with a receding hairline, ‘Our Hart’ the novel is also a more mature read than its predecessor. Passion has been replaced by piety while the lust of the first novel has been lost to love (“He had changed…what he enjoyed more was the companionship”). Rather than spending his nights exploring his concubine’s body, an older Hart is now kept awake exploring his heart.

Yet despite saving Hart’s life in battle and being his Chinese voice of reason throughout his career, Ayaou remains just that: his concubine (“she came from peasant stock…she didn’t know any other way”). Hart, in a crisis of conscience that many an expat might identify with, “dreads the day he has to tell his friends and family back home about her.” Even after Ayaou gives birth to their first child, Hart remains conflicted (“If he named the baby, he was accepting responsibility...”). And how many westerners residing overseas can relate to this all-too-real passage: “One part of him wanted to make a marriage proposal, but his other half, the British half, said no.” Hart, by way of Lloyd Lofthouse, is the voice of any expat who has ever lived and loved in China.

- ELEGY FOR A CONCUBINE -

From dealing with the bedroom complexities that came with having two competing concubines, to dealing with the political complexities of competing imperial officials; from the weight of a pubescent concubine in Robert Hart’s arms to the weight of an ancient empire on his shoulders, the story of ‘Our Hart’ is divided by romantic drama and political intrigue as the protagonist himself is divided by his allegiance to both China and England.

‘Our Hart’ is a dark novel intent on capturing the despondent spirit of an outsider immersed in a brutal, bloody period of Chinese history. Dynastic Chinese nobility may have held an affinity for scenery and poetry to escape the harsh reality of medieval life, but Lofthouse, writing through the frantic eyes of his title character, wastes no time with lyrical beauty, with nary a description of a sunset to brighten its pages: “The world turned black and white with occasional violent flashes…there was no color in his life.”

Lofthouse gets down and dirty with gritty, old-fashioned storytelling, proletariat-style, but where author Lofthouse truly shines is his thought-provoking messages on relationships, attitudes and cultures.

When Lofthouse writes, “It is a sad truth that most (foreigners) only come to China to steal from us or cheat us. They do not spend the time to learn about our people and culture. They sail in…buy Chinese women, defile them and leave the women with ruined lives,” it is commentary directed at western expats as valid in 2010 as it was in the mid-1800’s.

‘Our Hart’ may also borrow a page from the author’s own experiences married to a Chinese, for only a white man who has ever experienced the near impossibility of trying to reason with an angry Chinese woman (“her voice was high, screeching”) could pen the emotionally exhausting dialogue described in the brilliant Chapter 13 – and then sum it up in what this reviewer considers perhaps the book’s most poignant sentence: “Understanding her behavior didn’t stop him from resenting it.”

- A DYING (h)ART -

To be sure, just as Robert Hart had his flaws, so too does ‘Our Hart’. With such a rich cast of characters in Hart’s universe whom Lofthouse could have tapped for the occasional alternative perspective to the storyline, one wonders why the author was set on a single, one-dimensional narrative. In this respect, Lofthouse could stand to learn from historical fiction masters James Michener and James Clavell, famed for plaiting their epic tales with intersecting subplots. Nonetheless, for its steamy romance and grapeshot-like action sequences, this reviewer nominates Lofthouse’s ‘Concubine’ saga Most Likely to be Optioned for a Film or Miniseries.

Lloyd Lofthouse is to be commended for immortalizing China’s most exemplary expatriate in the pages of his ‘Concubine’ books. For all his faults and sins, Sir Robert Hart was a true hero to both Chinese and westerners alike. Hart resided in China for over fifty years as “the lord and master of Chinese Maritime Customs” while serving the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. He was conferred numerous awards and titles and had a bronze statue constructed in his honor at Shanghai Square.

Yet as Shanghai-born authoress Anchee Min wrote in her prologue to ‘My Splendid Concubine,’ “Few know that Sir Robert Hart was once a household name in China.” A Beijing Today review of ‘Concubine’ also had it correct when it declared “today Hart is entirely without fame…the most famous foreigner in China would be Dashan.” True, true. But in spite of Dashan’s cool hair or his god-like name recognition amongst the television-addicted masses of New China, it is highly unlikely that the Canadian CCTV host will ever inspire anyone to pen novels about him.

In fact, one wonders if historical fiction is not a dying art simply because, thus far, the 21st century lacks any real heroes like Sir Robert Hart for future authors to write about.

###

The reviewer, Tom Carter, is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People ( )
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
1 vote | chinaphotographer | Jul 7, 2010 |
Robert Hart began as a humble British interpreter who, throughout his time in China in the 19th century, came to love and embrace this culture so different from his own Irish roots. Over the years he grew to really understand the Confucian and Taoist principles of honor and piety, and the Chinese took notice of his devotion to their values and culture. Hart’s love of and genuine respect for the Chinese customs and way of life set him apart from the other “foreign devils” whose only goals were to manipulate and hoodwink the Chinese in order to make a profit.

Hart rose in rank as an interpreter and soon found himself promoted to work for the Chinese as a local inspector of customs, eventually to become the Inspector General of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service. Hart recognized that in order to succeed in his role as a virtual go-between for the two nations, he must always handle any issue with the utmost poise and finesse. He often found himself surrounded by peers and superiors who did not demonstrate the same level of respect towards the Chinese as he did. Many of the British saw the Chinese as barbarian heathens who needed to be converted to Christianity, and it took a lot of restraint on his part to hold his tongue where his ignorant superiors were concerned.

Hart’s ability to smooth over tricky political situations and his growing reputation as a man who was true to his word eventually caught the attention of the Dynasty, and in particular, the brother of the emperor, Prince Kung. The significance of the title “Our Hart” is not to be taken lightly–Hart was the only foreigner the Dynasty trusted, and over time he cultivated a friendship and business relationship with Kung, which enabled him the influence necessary to make even greater improvements in the Chinese political system. He began by rooting out corruption from wherever it existed, and although Kung and the rest of the ministers were at first skeptical of his foreign methods, any doubts were soon quashed, as Hart’s approaches quickly proved vital to the stability of the Dynasty. Hart became so endeared to the Chinese that they referred to him as “Our Hart.”

Throughout the many changes of location and tricky situations Robert encounters, his concubine Ayaou remains his rock and constant. At the heart of this fascinating book is their love story. Robert learns that Ayaou has merits that exceed beyond the bedroom; in fact he utilizes her knowledge of Chinese culture and social protocol to his advantage and takes note from her inherent Chinese wisdom. The book begins after the brutal murder of Ayaou’s sister (and Robert’s second concubine) Shao-mei by one of Robert’s rivals, and Robert reflects on happier times spent with Shao-mei and Ayaou throughout the course of the novel. Shao-mei’s murder is a turning point in his life that causes him to constantly question the safety of his surroundings. Realizing that he is not only responsible for himself, but also for the lives of his “Chinese family,” Robert learns to find happiness again but vows to avenge Shao-mei’s death and seek vengeance from her murderers.

Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine is the sequel to the multi award winning My Splendid Concubine: A Novel by Lloyd Lofthouse. Although I did not read My Splendid Concubine, I did feel that this truly was a standalone novel that did not require its predecessor to be read in order for one to enjoy the story. The book was a really quick read for me, and one by which I was completely captivated the whole way through. My favorite aspect of this novel was reading about all the political issues facing China during the 19th century. Between the Taiping Rebellions, the Opium Wars, the tension among China and Western Europe, and the political mistrust between the Manchu and Han Chinese, Robert Hart certainly had his work cut out for him. One can certainly see why he was so very deserving of the title “The Godfather of China’s Modernism”.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from a publicist for review. ( )
  HistFicChick | May 23, 2010 |
In this sequel to the bestselling book My Splendid Concubine, Robert Hart's story continues. After the death of his beloved concubine at the hands of a disgruntled assassin, Hart moves his remaining concubine, Ayaou, and himself to safer quarters; But this does not abate his feelings of fear and desolation for the safety of Ayaou. Robert is perplexed over who would wish to do his family harm, but he does not have the luxury of time to ponder these things, for he is needed in governmental capacities in China. Working his way up from an interpreter to Inspector General of Maritime Customs, Hart befriends some of the most powerful men in China and brings revolutionary ideas and change to a country where time seems to have stood still. Although his star continues to rise, he is held back by his love of Ayaou, knowing that by marrying her, his career will falter. Still, Robert staunchly refuses to leave Ayaou and fathers children with her, hoping that one day he will be able to bring his relationship with her into the light. In this poignant tale of love and duty, Llloyd Lofthouse illuminates one of the most fascinating and forgotten men in history, the loyal and ingenious Robert Hart.

The more I delve into historical fiction, the more I realize that there are so many people and places that I have no experience with, and I am always surprised to discover that there is so much richness in these seemingly quiet stories. My experience reading this book is no different. I am not sure how I had never heard of Robert Hart, but after reading this second installment of his story, I have found another character in the annals of history to ponder over and admire.

This book was written in fairly simple language. Starting out, I had felt that this might be a hindrance to the tale, for it might fail to capture the more complex nature of the plot. As I read on, I discovered that the choice of unadorned language really made all of the elements of the plot stand out in a way that complicated sentence structure wouldn't. It was not a simple story but the fact that it was told in such a simple way fully highlighted the impact of heroism and devotion of the main character. Lofthouse managed to be very through and complex through the use of minimalist language, which I really ended up enjoying and remarking over.

Though the focus was mainly on Robert Hart, I was a bit more interested in his concubine Ayaou, and not due to a fondness for her. I found her to be whiny and self-absorbed and thought that Robert was really a saint for putting up with her. Between her running away when she didn't get what she wanted and being petulant because she couldn't figure out what direction she wanted to take her relationship in, it seemed remarkable to me that Robert continued to love and adore her throughout. It became ever clearer to me that they were not really a good match, and why others, including his family in Ireland, would object to their marriage. Though Robert does some amazing things in his career in China, I thought the most amazing thing he was able to do was love Ayaou unconditionally for so many years. To me it was remarkable that he was such a glutton for punishment.

Hart himself was a wonderful character to be invested with. He had a quiet determination and a no-nonsense attitude towards his work for the consulate. Where countless others failed, he was able to triumph due to his strict moral code and the fact that he understood Chinese culture so fully. As he worked his way up the ladder, he became more and more well regarded until he was hobnobbing with the emperors. When the elite of China began to call him "Our Hart," it was clear to me that he had managed something that no other Westerner was able to do: blend in so perfectly that he became in essence, Chinese. He never failed to rise to the occasion, and no matter what he was asked to sacrifice, he did so with aplomb. He pushed through some pretty magnificent changes in China and was responsible for building most of China's railroads, post offices and schools.

Much was said in this book about the disparities between Eastern and Western culture. Robert's success is mostly due to the fact that he thought of the Chinese as a worthy people with a culture that was not to be absorbed and destroyed, but rather a culture to be honored and preserved. Throughout the story, many other figures are highlighted, and most of these men had a reprehensible attitude towards the country and its inhabitants. Men that thought of the Chinese as savages, good only for hard labor and extermination. These men came from all over the world to subjugate China and steal its resources, never willing to preserve and replenish the beauty that had existed for thousands of years.

I enjoyed this look at a time and place that was fraught with uncertainty and was pleased to get to know the force of nature that was Robert Hart. I think that those readers with a discerning eye for Chinese history would be greatly impacted by this book and learn a lot about not only the area, but the politics of the time period. Don't let the simple style fool you, this is a story full of bravery, honor and sacrifice. A very compelling read. ( )
  zibilee | Feb 19, 2010 |
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