Read CHAPTER VIII of Sir Robert Hart The Romance of a Great Career‚ 2nd Edition, free online book, by Juliet Bredon, on


Robert Hart therefore went quietly on with his work in the Customs (1885), setting personal ambitions calmly aside, and findinglet us hopehis reward in the satisfaction which the Chinese and the service generally expressed at his sacrifice of the British Government’s tempting offer.

The very year after it was made, an important piece of business, safely, even brilliantly concluded, added greatly to his reputation. This was the settlement of questions relating to the simultaneous collection of duty and likin on opiumtwo of the burning questions of the day in the south. China had long desired to levy both taxes at one and the same time, but without an arrangement with the Hongkong and Macao Governments this was impossible, as clever smugglers usually contrived to hurry the drug safely into either British or Portuguese territory before the Chinese authorities could lay their eyes, much less levy their duties, upon it. Moreover, once it had crossed a frontier, redress was impossible.

To remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, the I.G., together with a certain Taotai, was sent on a mission. Great pourparlers were held with the Hongkong authorities, who finally agreed to the concessions he askedprovided the Macao authorities should do the same. Luckily they did with readinesseven with enthusiasmas they themselves were anxious for a quid pro quo from China.

The Portuguese position in Macao had always been a peculiar oneunofficial is the word which best describes itfor though they had quietly occupied the place since the far-away days of the Mings, the Chinese had tolerated the strangers without recognizing them, only now and then murdering one by way of protest. Here, then, was their chance to obtain official status, and the Governor, a shrewd man, seized it. The matter went through without a hitch; China, in addition to getting her own way on the likin question, was given the right to open her Custom Houses at Kowloon (Hongkong) and Lappa (Macao), while Portugal on her side agreed never to sell or cede Macao to any other Power without China’s consent.

A slight passage-at-arms between the I.G. and a certain Chinese official enlivened the proceedings, and threw an amusing sidelight on Oriental methods. This man, when Robert Hart met him in Canton, said with amazing frankness, “I had a spy in Hongkong who repeated to me faithfully all that went on there, all that you did, all that you said; but I had nobody in Macao. So will you please tell me what happened in the latter place?”

When the I.G. refused, saying the business concerned only himself and the Yamen, the fellow was first genuinely amazed, then righteously indignant, finally secretly vindictive. He nursed the grievance for years, and revenged himself at last by memorializing against the I.G.’s famous Land Tax Scheme, which, weathering a storm of bitter criticism, lived to enjoy great praise.

Once this Mission was over, the I.G. travelled no more. Things were so well established by this time that there was no need for him to tour the ports, and increasing work kept him ever closer to his desk in Peking. Never was a man, I think, who lived a quieter or more orderly life, or who had less recreation in his days. He went little into society; when he did, his rare appearances were immensely remarkedmuch as the passage of a comet might have beenand if he made a visit, it was talked of with pride all through the community. Indeed, the hostess who could say “The I.G. took tea with me to-day,” was something of a heroine. He read much and wrote prodigiously, sending outand receiving toothe mail of a Prime Minister.

One extravagance, and only one, did he permit himselfI am thinking of his private band. Yet even that he did not deliberately seek. The idea came to him unexpectedly, put into his head by the Commissioner of Customs at Tientsin, who wrote one day that he had among his subordinates the very man for a bandmaster. Pathetic derelict, a bandmaster without a band! Acting upon a sudden inspirationperhaps with some subtle intuition of the important part the music was to play in the life of the community in after years, and of all the pleasure it was to givethe I.G. sent money from his private purse to buy instruments and music, though until that moment the idea of a band in Peking had seemed infinitely remote if not utterly preposterous.

Some dozen promising young Chinese were at once collected and initiated into the complicated mysteries of chords and keys. They learned quickly and wellso well that within a year eight of them were ready to come up to the capital and teach others. A doubtful venture became an assured success. More and more players were added; a promising barber, lured, perhaps, by the playing of his friend’s flute, abandoned his trade and set to work on the ’cello; or a shoemaker, forsaking his last, devoted himself to the cornet. The neighbouring tailor laid aside his needle; the carter left his cart, bewitched away from everyday things by the music. It may be the smart uniform had something to do with the popularity of the organization; there is ever a fine line between art and vanitybut why dwell upon an ignoble motive?

Suffice it to say, whether from pure conceit or better things, the little company grew till it reached a score, and, under a Portuguese bandmaster, touched a high level of perfection, playing both on brass and strings with taste and spirit. The Tientsin branch flourished equally well and became ultimately the Viceroy’s band, and the mother of bands innumerable all over the metropolitan province of Chihli. But in reputation it never equalled what was known throughout China as the “I.G.’s Own.”

In spring and autumn his musicians gave an open-air concert in the Inspectorate garden every Wednesday afternoon. Of course, this was the event of the week so far as society was concerned. Peking residents, as well as many distinguished strangers who happened to be passing, came to listen. The scene was invariably animated; ladies walked about under the lilacs, which in April hung over the paths like soft clouds of purple fog, displaying their newest toilettes; diplomats discussed la situation politique; missionaries argued points of doctrine; correspondents exchanged bits of news. All nationalities, classes and creeds were represented in this cosmopolitan corner of the world, but the lions and the lambs agreed tacitly to tolerate each other for the sake of hearing the familiar tunes, warming as good old wine to the hearts of exiles, and for the sake of seeing the mysterious man whose advice, given, as it were, under his breath, shaped the course of events in China.

He guessed well enough what brought the people, and would sometimes remark laughingly, “They come; I know why they all come. It is just to get a sight of the two curios of Peking, the I.G. and his queer musicians.”

Occasionally Chinese guests would mingle with the rest, lending with their silken gowns and silken manners a touch of picturesqueness to the scene. I can well remember seeing the famous Wu Ting Fang, whose alert manner made him a general favourite. He prided himself upon itand rightly. “How old do you think I am?” he asked his host one day. “Perhaps forty-five,” was the reply. “Forty-five! What a guess! Sixty-five would have been nearerand I mean to live to be two hundred.”

He went on to explain carefully how this feat was to be accomplished. The first thing, naturally, was diet. The man who would cheat time should live on nuts like the squirrels (do they contrive to do it, I wonder?). Under no conditions should he touch salt, lest a dangerous precipitate form upon his bones, and he should begin and end each meal with a teaspoonful of olive oil. So much for the physical side: the mental is no less important. “I have hung scrolls in my bedroom,” Wu Ting Fang went on to explain, “with these sentences written upon them in English and in Chinese: ‘I am young, I am healthy, I am cheerful.’ Immediately I enter the room my eye falls upon these precepts. I say to myself, Why, of course I am, and therefore I am.” Was ever simpler or saner method discovered for warding off old age?

Towards the end of 1889 the Chinese Government, desirous of paying the I.G. a special compliment, chose to confer upon him an honour never before given to any foreigner. Without precedent and without warning, the Emperor issued an Imperial Decree raising him to the Chinese equivalent of the peerage. Henceforth he belonged to the distinguished company of Iron Hatted Dukesat least not he but his ancestors did, for this was no ordinary father-to-son patent of nobility. The topsy-turvy honour reached backward instead of forward, diminishing one rank with each succeeding generation.

The Chinese reason as follows: “If a man is wise or great or successful, it is because his forbears were studious or temperate or frugal. Therefore, when we give rewards, shall we not give them where they are justly due?” Something might be said for a point of view so diametrically opposed to our own, but the question of ethics has nothing to do with my story.

The strange feature of it is that the very night before the Edict appearedwhen the I.G. had not the slightest hint of what was in store for himhe dreamed of his father’s fathera thing he had not done for years. Dressed in a snuff-coloured suit, with knee-breeches and shining shoe buckles, he appeared walking down the little street of Portadown leaning heavily upon a blackthorn stick and murmuring sadly, “Nobody cares for me, nobody takes any notice of me.” Nobody, indeed?

The very next evening at a dinner party at the French Legation some one told the I.G. of the new honour, gazetted an hour before, and how an Emperor, with a stroke of his Vermilion Pencil, had deprived the ghost of a grievance.

Equally romantic was a coincidence that happened when the I.G. was made a Baronet in 1893. The question of arms then coming up, he made all possible enquiries concerning those which his family had a right to use. Without doubt the Harts did bear arms in the days of William of Orange, when they were granted to the famous Dutchman Captain van Hardt who so distinguished himself at the Battle of the Boyne. But after his death the family grew poor; the arms fell into disuse and were forgotten so completely that one descendant thought they might have been a hart rampant, while another declared they were a sheaf of burning wheat.

Robert Hart was not the man to grope long in a fog of mystery. He decided the question once and for all by submitting a blazon of his own choice to the College of Heralds, and his designthree fleurs de lis and a four-leaved shamrockwas sanctioned, as it had not been previously applied for.

The search for the original arms was naturally given up then, but by the merest accident they were ultimately found. Some member of the family happening years afterwards to stroll through a very old cemetery in Dublin, curiosity or idleness led him to examine the tombstones. One in particular attracted his attention, perhaps because it was more dilapidated and tumble-down than the rest. He gently scraped the moss from the inscription and found that he had stumbled on the long-forgotten tomb of Captain van Hardt, and underneath the hero’s name he found a coat-of-arms, half obliterated yet still recognizable. It showed three fleurs de lis and a four-leaved shamrock.

But it must not be imagined that Robert Hart was the man to rest on his laurels or to regard honours as so many flags of truce entitling him to draw out, even for a time, of the battle of work. From 1889 to 1903 he was deeply engaged on that very important business the Sikkim-Thibet Convention. The Thibetans having crossed the border into Sikkim, a State protected by the British, the British in return sent an expedition into Thibet and, since there was trouble about the frontier, refused to go out again. This was a very disagreeable predicament for China. She turned, as usual, to the man who never ceased labouring on her behalf, and, as usual, he rose to the occasion.

Mr. James Hart, the I.G.’s brother, lately returned from delimitating the Tonkin frontier, was sent posthaste to assist the Amban, the Chinese Resident in Thibet. As a result of this wise choice, the preliminary Treaty was put through by 1890, and the Chinese Customs opened stations in Thibet. Three questions relative to trade, however, remained to be settled, and for three long years negotiations over these dragged on at Darjeeling.

Needless to say it was a slow and often wearisome business, with the interest, to my mind, unfairly divided. On one side, the Thibetan side, there was picturesqueness enough, though not without discomfort too, for many a time the envoys must needs cross mountain-passes so deep in snow that a hundred Thibetans marched ahead treading it down, and not less often they must sleep in the rudest camps and eat the unsavoury cuisine of the country. But on the other, the Peking side, there was nothing but hard and dreary work, since every word that the Chinese Commissioners said was telegraphed back to the I.G., and then carefully discussed with the Yamen.

No sooner was quiet restored in Thibet than anxiety about war with Japan began to agitate the Chinese capital. The air was as full of rumours as a woman of whims. One day, happening to find himself beside Baron Komura, the Japanese Charge d’Affaires in Peking, the I.G. half laughingly remarked, “So you are going to fight China after all? I suppose you will win.” “Oh, one never knows,” was the Minister’s diplomatic reply. Strange to say the general opinion among men less practical and less well-informed than the Inspector-General, was that China would easily win a war against Japanif it came to warjust as later the unanimous opinion in the Far East was that if Russia fought Japan, Russia must conquer.

But subsequent events proved Robert Hart right. China, after a brief struggle, was severely beaten, and peace came as a relief. Then immediately the question of loans to pay off the indemnity arose. Two small war loans of Tl,000,000 each were floated, it is true, during the actual hostilities, but the first big loan of 16,000,000 was not arranged till so late as 1896.

The I.G. had the matter in hand; but unfortunately, just as he was about to complete it, French and Russian banks offered to lend the sum at a cheaper rate of interest, and so it was given to them. They also agreed to float a second loan for 16,000,000. But at the last moment, either because of some hitch in the minor arrangements, or because the Chinese suddenly thought it might be unwise to put all their eggs in one basket, they turned again to Robert Hart.

Late one night a Yamen messenger came clattering down the silent streets, the sound of his pony’s hoof-beats echoing from the compound walls and arousing the whole quarter, there was a prodigious thumping on the big outer gate before a sleeping watchman could be made to roll out of his wadded quilts; but finally, after prolonged consultation, the despatch was taken in to the I.G., the messenger calmed with tea and a pourboire, and quiet once more restored. Next morning, early, the I.G.’s cart was at the doora vehicle, by the way, interesting in itself, since it was chosen by Hung Ki, the man who liberated Sir Harry Parkesand Robert Hart started for the only shop in Peking, ostensibly to buy toys for his children friends, as it was near Christmas.

In those days the Legations watched his movements very closely; he wished them to hear that his little expedition was purely a pleasurable one. No doubt they did, for not a soul knew that, when he casually strolled into a bank near by, it was to quietly produce a paper from his pocket and say, as one might say “Good day,”“I have here a loan agreement for 16,000,000, but I can only give it to you on condition that you sign immediately.”

Half an hour later the necessary signatures were on the documentthe whole great matter put through. Looking back upon the success, one marvels at how he contrived it so rapidly that, once the news was out, people caught their breath with astonishment. Instinctively he must have felt it was a psychological moment when a man is required to take responsibilityto presume even on his power, and that in a moment’s hesitation all might have been lost.

In 1896 came the formal establishment of the Imperial Chinese Post Officein itself the work of many a man’s lifetime. Money had to be found for the experiment from the Customs funds first, then innumerable rules and regulations framed and experiments tried before it became a practical working institution. The I.G.’s wonderful grasp of detail stood him in good stead then, for a hundred details came daily under his notice, and he was consulted on every possible subjectfrom a design on a postage stamp to the opening of a new department. To him, indeed, belongs the entire credit for the designing and building of the greatest success of recent years in Chinaa postal service, grown beyond the most sanguine hopes, which not only pays its own way but is beginning to turn over some revenueindirectly, of courseto the Imperial Treasury.

Meanwhile the “five years longer” that he had privately set as the term of his life in China when he refused to become British Minister at Peking (1885) were long since passed, and five other years had followed them, yet he had never found it possible to return to his own country. Each spring he debated whether he might safely leave his unfinished plans, which, ranging as they did over a vast number of subjects, could not well be given half completed into other hands, and each spring some new problem claimed his attention. In 1896, however, he faced a harder decision than usual. The road was perhaps unusually openand yet he knew that, half hidden, there were obstacles waiting to be met.

At this crisis of indecision he decided to do what he had so often done beforeconsult the Bible. This had been a habit of his father’s before him; in fact, his whole family had asked guidance on every venture they undertook, no matter how humble it might be, and the training of his childhood was not outgrown. He accordingly took the Bible lying on his desk and opened it at random one evening. There, truly enough, was an answer clear and unmistakable in the very first verse his eye lighted uponActs xxvi: “Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.” It immediately decided him to remain in China, and he suffered no more from perplexity or indecision.

Robert Hart was indeed deeply religious. Unlike so many men who have passed their lives in the East, he never absorbed any Eastern fatalism, nor did the lamp of his faith ever burn dimly because he mixed with men of other and older creeds. The Christian ideal he always considered the highest in the world; but once, when trying to live up to it, he was brought to confusion, though not through any fault of his own.

One day, as he was leaving the gate of a certain mission where he had been to pay a call, a Chinese of the poorer classes, unkempt and dirty, came and threw an arm about his shoulders, saying, “I see you are also coming away from the mission, so we are brothers in Christ. I will accompany you on your way.”

The I.G. afterwards confessed that his first feeling was one of irritation at the man’s familiaritywhich amounted almost to impertinenceand his second, disgust at the grimy hand so near his collar. To summarily shake it off was a natural instinct. But, when he thought a moment, he clearly saw the absurdity of professing a creed of universal brotherhood and then, as soon as some one attempted brotherly familiarity, of repulsing him. Therefore he suffered the man’s arm to remain as far as the corner of the big street, where he made a determined effort to get free, saying, “My way lies in this direction,” and attempting to slip off before his companion could see which point of the compass “this” was.

But the fellow-Christian was observant and consistent. “Oh, I will come with you,” he said, in the tone of one doing a kindness, so the I.G. could do nothing but resign himself to his fate. Baronet and coolie made a triumphal progress down Legation Street, much to the amusement of the sentries on guard, and by the time he reached his own door the former felt a few shamefaced doubts about the advisability of mission methods which inculcated the equality of man irrespective of colour, class, and cleanliness.

1899 saw the Germans take possession of Kiaochow, and the question of establishing a branch of the Chinese Customs there was discussed and settled, China finally obtaining the right to open her own Kiaochow Custom House, with a German staff of her own employees.

This was the last important international work he undertook before the memorable Siege in 1900. Already the first mutterings of the storm sounded. The first Boxers appeared in Shantunga little cloud of fanatics scarcely bigger than a man’s hand. But soon they were spreading over all the north of China, and even spilling into the metropolitan province of Chihli itself.