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The Customs of the Country

The I.G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907

edited by John King Fairbank, by Katherine Frost Bruner, by Elizabeth MacLeod Matheson, with an introduction by L.K. Little
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2 vols, 1625 pp., $50.00

In a recent review of Dr. Lo Hui-min’s excellent edition of The Correspondence of G.E. Morrison,* I wrote about the aggressive philosophy which Morrison, as Peking correspondent of the London Times, brought to China in the 1890s and preached with relish throughout the next twenty years. Now Dr. Lo’s edition of Morrison’s letters has been succeeded by a no less scholarly edition of the correspondence of a very different character who also spent most of his life in Peking: Sir Robert Hart. Indeed, in a sense, the two works are complementary, for Morrison took off where Hart began to decline. The brief period of overlap, when they were both together in Peking, was the dramatic period of the Hundred Days’ Reform, the Boxer Rising, and its sequel: the period in which the policy of Hart seemed to have foundered and the policy of Morrison would take root.

Sir Robert Hart made his name in China as “I.G.,” that is, Inspector General of the Imperial Customs. The Chinese Customs Service had first been created at Shanghai in 1854, at the time of the Taiping Rebellion, by a treaty freely negotiated between the Chinese government and the foreign mercantile powers, Britain, France, and America, led by Britain. Its purpose was to enforce agreed tariffs on all merchants alike, independently of mandarin or mercantile corruption. The system worked well, and in 1860, after the Treaty of Tientsin which closed the “Arrow War,” it was extended to all the so-called “Treaty Ports.” Although set up under foreign impulse, and manned largely by foreigners, and always under a foreign Inspector General, the service was a Chinese department, responsible to the Tsungli Yamen, the newly created Chinese Board of Foreign Affairs.

Its officials, whatever their nationality, were servants of the Chinese, not of their own government, and their duty was not only to administer the agreed tariff regulations but also to advise the Chinese authorities whose confidence had been gained by their honest accountancy of public revenue. The first Inspector General appointed under this new system was an Englishman, H.N. Lay. Unfortunately he soon discredited himself by his extravagant personal ambitions and within two years he was dismissed. To replace him, the Chinese government appointed Robert Hart, who had joined the Customs in 1859 and was now twenty-eight years old.

Hart had no megalomaniac ambitions: consequently, unlike Lay, he lasted long. He also achieved much. In his forty-six years as I.G. he built up the Chinese Maritime Customs into a powerful organ of state, “China’s first modern civil service,” which continued to serve changing Chinese governments until the communist revolution. His reign coincided almost exactly with the de facto rule of the Empress Dowager. Having been appointed a few months after the beginning of her first Regency, he left China finally a few months before her death, and died in 1911, a few weeks before the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty.

Throughout his long rule, Hart kept copious records. Many of them perished during the siege of the Legations, when the Customs House was burned by the Boxers, but the seventy-seven volumes of his personal diary were carried out of the flames by a young assistant and preserved. Hart afterward professed to regret their survival. “I now wish it had gone to the flames with my other belongings,” he wrote in 1902, and he asked that it should not be “either published or lent to writers of any kind.” However, he did not destroy it, and it is now intact in the library of his old university.

Apart from this diary, the most important set of documents concerning his administration are his letters to his representative in London, James Duncan Campbell, and these are the letters which have now been edited, with scrupulous scholarship, by Professor Fairbank, Katherine Bruner, and the late Elizabeth Matheson, with the help of Hart’s final successor, the last foreign Inspector General of the Chinese Customs, Mr. L.K. Little. Mr. Little, an American, arrived in China in 1914, six years after Hart’s retirement. In his forty years in the Chinese Customs, he must have lived under the long shadow and strong memory of the famous I.G. Now eighty-four years old, he has supplied a masterly introduction to this book. Succinct, lucid, and relevant, it says everything and says it very well. It is a model of what such an introduction should be.

There are 1,437 letters from Hart to Campbell. They begin in 1868, when Campbell left China for Europe on a mysterious secret mission for the Chinese government, after which he stayed on to take charge of Hart’s new office in London, and they end with Campbell’s death in 1907. Unfortunately we have only one side of the correspondence, for Campbell’s letters to Hart are largely lost. The originals perished in the burning of the Customs House, and Campbell’s copies—except for two volumes which had become detached from the collection—disappeared during the communist takeover in Shanghai.

However, it is obvious from Hart’s letters that Campbell was far more than Hart’s agent in London. He was his confidant, his alter ego, his errand boy. Hart wrote to him regularly, kept him informed of everything, called on him for every kind of help. Campbell was asked to arrange for the education of children, to manage private investments and disbursements, to negotiate about decorations and honors, to investigate genealogies and arrange coats-of-arms, to purchase and send out to China such necessary items as could not be bought locally: shirts, books, musical instruments, specially designed uniforms, billiard cues, mousetraps, violin glue, private presents for friends, lop-eared rabbits for children. Consequently Hart’s letters to him illustrate not only the public activities but also the private tastes of a great Victorian administrator.

What kind of a man, then, was Hart? He was an Ulsterman, with the tenacity, but without the bigotry, of some of his compatriots: indeed, he would even accept, with sardonic relish, a papal decoration. Educated at the Queen’s University, Belfast, he was an accomplished classical scholar, and all his life he showed a real love of literature. He knew and quoted the ancient poets; he was a critical reader of the English poets—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning—and at the age of seventy would send to England for Housman’s Shropshire Lad; and in China he studied Confucianism and Buddhism, and knew the Chinese classics.

He also loved music. His early letters from Peking are full of requests for instruments and scores. He insisted on a good violin for himself, and ultimately secured a Stradivarius. The private brass band which he built up was famous in Peking. Unfortunately the Empress Dowager also took to music in her old age, and Hart complained that her patronage “threatens to decompose my band.” She seduced his first clarinet with a high salary, and “I fear several of the others will follow suit.”

Between his own liberal views and the cosmopolitan character of his service, in which twenty nations were represented, Hart became himself an international figure. Though he called himself an Englishman (as did Morrison, an Australian of Scottish origin), he stood apart from the British colony in China and had many disagreements with the British merchants and consuls there. He was unwilling to make his service “a British institution” (though British preponderated in it), and he objected to the British Minister’s demand that the I.G. must always be British. Hart saw himself as the head of an international body whose prime duty was to serve Chinese interests. “I want to make China strong,” he wrote in 1881, “and I want her to make England her best friend. English doings—consular always, Legation occasionally—are against me.” Always his first duty was to China: the word “we” in his correspondence, when used politically, means not the British but the Chinese.

In China, as Morrison would observe, Hart was “never an autocrat,” for he was always under the authority of the imperial court. But within his service, he was absolute. He alone was recognized by the Chinese government, and he ruled, promoted, punished, and discharged his European and Chinese staff—there were over 4,000 of them by 1895—at will. He ensured that their terms of employment were fair, but he would not allow any of them to acquire an independent position of power. “Safety and success of the Customs,” he once wrote, “is owing to the one man rule.” This monarchical authority rested, at one level, on his own industry and efficiency. He worked from eight to ten hours a day, standing at a high desk, day in, day out; he kept up a huge correspondence; he knew everything; he was indispensable.

At another, deeper level, it rested on a moral foundation. Hart was convinced that, with his authority as I.G., he could do more than anyone else for the peaceful modernization of China. For that authority, in his hands, was immense. Nor was it confined to Customs work. On the basis of the Customs revenues, which the Chinese government could use as security for loans, he was able to intervene elsewhere. He founded and operated the Chinese postal service. He provided finance for the Chinese diplomatic service. He financed the T’ung-wen kuan, or Interpreters’ College at Peking, and personally selected the professors to teach modern science there. He built lighthouses, organized hydrographic and meteorological services. He tried to secure control of the new Chinese navy. He arranged Chinese exhibitions abroad, published documents, planned all kinds of reform. For, as he would write to the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, “The Service which I direct is called the Customs Service, but its scope is wide and its aim is to do good work for China in every possible direction: it is indeed a possible nucleus for a reformed administration in all its branches and for improvement in all the industries of the Empire.”

The occasion of this statement was a proposal by Lord Salisbury, in 1885, that Hart should be appointed British Minister in Peking. He was indeed fit for the post, as he would show by his diplomatic work on behalf of China on several occasions: in the Franco-Chinese war of 1885 in Tonkin, in the British dealings with Burma and Sikkim, and in regulating, with the Portuguese, the status of Macao. However, Hart ultimately refused the post, on the ground that he could do more good as I.G., assuming—as he safely could with Lord Salisbury—that the integrity of China was a British interest.

So he continued his work, and his quiet extension of it. In 1888, when a new embankment was carried away by the flooded Yellow River, killing a thousand workmen, Hart lamented the calamity, and then added, “I would like to get hold of the work myself: I’m sure our Service organisation could pull it through successfully.” “Our Service organisation,” in fact, could do anything. And how much there was to do! Only one must not, like Hart’s predecessor Lay, set about it in a personal, entrepreneurial spirit. Conviction, persuasion, understanding—these were the essential methods. Hart believed that he understood Chinese ways. The great mistake was to suppose that initiative came from the top, the court. On the contrary, he wrote in 1873,

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    NYR, June 10, 1976.

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