The Customs of the Country

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

edited by John King Fairbank and Katherine Frost Bruner and 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…

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