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,

The policy of the central Government in China is not to guide, but to follow events. Its duty seems to be to keep records of past occurrences, legalise faits accomplis, and—strangle whatever comes before it in embryo…. To come to the Government first and ask for its written permission to do anything, is simply to elicit an answer in the negative and to weight a scheme, at the very start, with an official prohibition. I could fill reams of paper with illustrations…. Peking is the last place in China to select for the introduction of novelties, and the Central Government is the last authority to ask for support of any kind: local growth,—and that the farther from Peking the better,—is the only process of development recognised, or to be relied on in this country.

On this principle he worked quietly away, planning the modernization of the vast country. “So far,” he would write,

we have simply been preparing and piling the ground for the building Progress is to put on it, and much hard work, many good plans, many hopes and prayers are now sunk below the surface and will never be seen or heard of more: those who come after us will put up the structure, and finding it stand, will say “what fools those fellows were not to build before!” Just so! We and our foundation work out of sight, the then-generation will crow over its tower and steeple. But some day or other “Truth will spring from the earth.”

And again,

I shall never leave China contentedly unless I see mines at work, railways in operation, telegraphs spreading.

Hart never lost his conviction that China could be modernized and that he could modernize it. Five years before his retirement, he proposed a new fiscal system. If the Chinese government would follow his advice and re-arrange the land tax, he said, “all would be well”: from that one source alone it would receive over three times its present revenue and could forgo other taxes, meet its obligations, keep up respectable armed forces, “and have a balance to the good each year.” Unfortunately, by that time the political situation had changed in China, and Hart had almost lost faith in the Manchu dynasty.

The change had begun in 1884. In that year, the Empress Dowager had dismissed Prince Kung, who for twenty-four years had dominated the Grand Council and the Tsungli Yamen, and had given power to the party of reaction and resistance to reform. Ironically, when Hart, next year, refused the post of Minister in Peking on the ground that he could do more in his present post, his power to do anything was shrinking. By 1894 he was saying, of his reforms, “I am afraid we are tinkering a cracked kettle.” Next year he wrote, “I fear that, as far as the dynasty is concerned, it is hopeless. In ten years’ time, revolution will do the trick”; and again, a year later, “There must be a dynastic cataclysm before wholesome reform can operate.”

In 1898 there was, if not a dynastic cataclysm, at least a dynastic coup de théâtre. The Kuang-hsu Emperor embraced the party of reform. But after the famous “hundred days,” the old Empress Dowager struck back, and with the triumph of reaction Hart foresaw the probable consequences. The sclerosis of China, he wrote in November 1898, would provoke foreign imperialism.

There is a very strong desire to excuse territorial robbery on a large scale by saying the dynasty is effete and recuperation impossible; it is England’s attitude—desires to have a strong China and Chinese integrity preserved—that blocks the way: were England to give the sign there would be a scramble before Xmas!

England did not give the sign, but eighteen months later the Chinese government itself forced the issue. It allied itself with the revolutionary Boxers and made war on all foreigners alike who had established themselves in China.

To Hart, who had spent his life trying to modernize China in friendship with European powers, and especially Britain, the Boxer Rising, with the massacre of Christians and the siege of the Legations which followed it, was a disaster, the negation of all his work: for it was the end of reform, the end of collaboration with the West, the certain source of bitterness to come. When the Boxer army entered Peking and the Customs House was destroyed, he withdrew with his staff into the British Legation compound. The last telegram that he was able to send was to Li Hung-chang, the Westernizing Viceroy of Canton, urging him to use his influence with the Empress Dowager to prevent violation of the Legations. He spent the siege, with the numerous Customs personnel, in “a small and inferior house” assigned to him by the Minister.

This discomfort was said to have been deliberately imposed, the Legation being always jealous of the Customs and their power; but Hart did not complain, and although in poor health, was cheerful throughout the siege and “a boon to the general morale.” When the capture of the Legations, and the massacre of the defenders, was wrongly reported in the British press, the Times published an obituary of Hart, and a memorial service for him in London was only held up by Campbell’s appeal to Lord Salisbury. When the siege was raised, Hart at once persuaded his Chinese friends to seek out and send to Peking the conciliatory Prince Ch’ing, who was to be the Empress Dowager’s chief minister for the rest of her reign. Meanwhile he completed a series of articles, which he had begun in pencil during the siege, and sent them for publication to the Fortnightly Review.

The avowed purpose of these articles, which were published in England, Europe, and America, was to counteract the anti-Chinese hysteria which the recent events had inevitably caused in the West. As Hart explained at the time, “I am horribly hurt by all that has occurred, but there it is and we can only try and make the best of it! I hold on to be of use to the Service, to China, and to general interests. I think I can be of use, and only I, in all three directions at this juncture.” The best account of the siege, he wrote six weeks later, would no doubt be written by Morrison; “he however is mortal, and I think his own sufferings (he was wounded) have made him take a more revengeful tone than he would otherwise have held. It is not the time for sentiment: common sense is what is most wanted.”

As a result of reading these letters, I was moved to read Hart’s articles, which were republished in book form in 1901 under the title These from the Land of Sinim. The “common sense” uttered in them, immediately after the terrible ordeal of the siege, is remarkable. Throughout, Hart seeks to explain the Boxer movement by reference to Chinese experience. Originally, he insists, it was a volunteer movement, as laudable, or at least as harmless, as the Primrose League in England. Its aims were simply to restore national dignity by frightening the foreigners out of China and putting an end to their privileges: their separate jurisdictions and their freedom to proselytize.

Hart, who referred to himself as a lay missionary, preaching the gospel of peace and progress, had little patience with theological missionaries whose claims, in China, were sometimes extravagant and presumptuous: in Shantung, the native province of Confucius, they insisted on being carried in green chairs and recognized as the equals of viceroys and governors, and their converts insolently claimed immunity from Chinese law. As for the intricacies of commerce which were held to justify special extraterritorial courts, Hart remarked that “there are prejudices to be respected as well as laws to be observed.” Whatever their just resentment at the Boxer excesses, wrote Hart, the Powers would do well to remember that the movement was a popular movement, supported by all classes, and that it was popular because it rose out of a common hatred, not of Christianity or commerce, but of the imperium in imperio of extraterritoriality. Therefore the occupying Powers should now reconsider their position. Missionaries and merchants should lose their special privileges. Extraterritoriality should be ended.

For in spite of their defeat, Hart insisted, the world had not heard the last of the Boxers. Their rising was not a mere episode: it was “the prelude to a century of change, the keynote of the future history of the Far East. The China of the year 2000 will be very different from the China of 1900.” The future of China must not be judged by its present military weakness, and it would be folly to exploit immediate victory by trying to partition China or to displace the present dynasty. The dynasty might be inadequate, but the Chinese people should be left “to deal with it themselves, when they feel that its mandate has expired.” Meanwhile, let the West take note that the aims of the Boxers “will be kept in view, worked up to, and in all probability accomplished—with other weapons in their hands—by the children or grandchildren of today’s volunteers.” Ridiculous though it might seem—the idea would no doubt “provoke a laugh”—

twenty million or more of Boxers, armed, drilled, disciplined and animated by patriotic—if mistaken—motives, will make residence in China impossible for foreigners, will take back from foreigners everything foreigners have taken from China, will pay off old grudges with interest, and will carry the Chinese flag and Chinese arms into many a place that even fancy will not suggest today…. In fifty years’ time there will be millions of Boxers in serried ranks and war’s panoply at the call of the Chinese government: there is not the slightest doubt of that.

These suggestions that Western governments should look behind and beyond the Boxer Rising, and see in it the sign not of Chinese malignancy but of Western failure, were naturally not popular in the Treaty Ports. As one old hand wrote to Morrison, Hart’s views, which he no doubt communicated to his Chinese friends, were “those of an obstructive mandarin,” “a disgrace to any Englishman”: he and his ally Li Hung-chang “are to my mind the real chief enemies of civilisation in China, and of England especially,” Morrison soon came to share these views. The sooner Hart left China, the better, he wrote; and after Hart had gone, the thought that he might be recalled to deal with the problems created by the Revolution filled him with alarm: it would be the return, he said, “of feminine influence, nepotism and corruption.” Hart, said Morrison, had been a disaster to the Customs service. Had he stayed longer, he would have altogether “wrecked” it. There was no room, in Morrison’s Peking, for “this aged man, whose services to China have certainly not been rewarded in a niggardly spirit…. It is estimated that Sir Robert Hart received payments for himself and the members of his family, since he joined the service in 1858, of more than £750,000.”

Perhaps, in his last years, Hart’s autocracy had become conservative. Perhaps he was well rewarded. Perhaps he was overgenerous to his family. He himself admitted, to some extent, the charge of nepotism. “I will not knowingly admit incompetent men,” he insisted, when turning down the son of an old friend, but as he operated a system of patronage, and relied absolutely on his own judgment, he chose, with a good conscience, those whom he knew best. So the Imperial Customs contained a good number of his relatives and fellow Ulstermen. “I have never advanced a worse man over a better,” he claimed, “yet if promotion is due to one of two men of equal deserts, and one of them is of my own flesh and blood, it would simply be unnatural to pass him over.”

As Mr. Little remarks, “this apologia should be read with the knowledge that it was Hart alone who was judge of the ‘deserts’ of the ‘two men.”‘ So we are not surprised that the Customs found room for his brother James, who took to the bottle and died an alcoholic, and his brother-in-law Robert Bredon, by whom he wished to be succeeded, and his nephew Sir Frederick Maze, who did succeed him, at one remove, in 1929, and his other nephew Robert Maze, who was far less satisfactory, not to mention his only son Bruce Hart, who expected to be carried on the payroll without soiling his hands by actual work. Here it is difficult to dissent from Morrison’s remark: “nepotism, which is the besetting sin of Chinese officialdom, has never been conspicuous by its absence from the administration of Sir Robert Hart.”

In spite of his generosity to its members, Hart derived little comfort from his family. When he first arrived in China, he lived with a Chinese woman, by whom he had three children. These he recognized as his “wards” and sent to good schools in England; after which they disappeared, only surfacing occasionally to demand money. By his wife, Hester Bredon, he had three children; but his wife lived permanently in England from 1882, the children were spoiled, and their later behavior was unsatisfactory. Hart had dynastic ambitions: he bought land in Ireland and obtained a hereditary title; but he was disappointed by his son’s neglect of his studies, early and unendowed marriage, dislike for work, and liking for the bottle. However, though distressed by these misfortunes, Hart took them philosophically: “I suppose we must allow for the swing of the pendulum. I have done the work and the gathering, and he can enjoy the leisure and the scattering.”

Hart’s personal wealth was duly scattered by his family. But his achievement in China lasted. The “Foreign Inspectorate” survived him by forty years, until it was abolished by the Chinese communists—those new “Boxers” whose resurgence after fifty years he had prophesied. Through it, he had performed a notable service to China. He had provided the central government, for the first time, with the means of raising large sums of money for growth and development, and he himself had forwarded and directed that growth and that development. He had also, as Mr. Little points out, given something to the world. He had created, in the Imperial Customs, the first “international civil service, a forerunner of those which were created in the twentieth century under the League of Nations after 1919 and the United Nations after 1945.” This entitles him to a monument, even if his statue in Shanghai has, by now, been pulled down.

This Issue

October 14, 1976