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Chinese Cultural Talk Series - Sir Robert Hart of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs: Serving Two Masters

Chinese Cultural Talk Series - Sir Robert Hart of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs: Serving Two Masters

This event is part of the Chinese Cultural Talk Series organised by The Language Centre at Queen's. We are pleased to invite Dr Emma Reisz, lecturer from School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, to give a public talk. Abstract In 1854, a nineteen-year-old from Portadown set sail for Hong Kong. His name was Robert Hart, and he was a recent graduate of the newly established Queen’s College Belfast. He had been nominated by Queen’s to join Britain’s Chinese Consular Service as a trainee interpreter, though he had no connections in China, and spoke no Chinese. On his arrival in Hong Kong, Hart reached a typically phlegmatic assessment of his circumstances. ‘This climate – the diseases it produces – may lay me in the dust,’ he told his diary. But, he consoled himself, ‘shall I not rest as well beneath the rocky soil of this "Happy Valley" as though I lay in Drumcree Churchyard, mine mingling with the dust of my forefathers?’ Despite this uncertain start to his career, in 1863 Hart became Inspector-General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs aged only twenty-eight, a post he went on to hold for forty-five years until 1908. By 1900, the customs service over which Hart presided had a staff of almost twenty thousand and his influence extended far beyond the Customs. Hart transformed China’s infrastructure, establishing a postal service and a network of lighthouses, and helped to shape the foreign relations of late imperial China. His influence was so wide-ranging that the historian John Fairbank called Robert Hart one-third of the ‘trinity in power’ in China in the later nineteenth century. Looking back at a career trying to serve both British and Chinese interests, Hart concluded that ‘there have been a mixture of motives, self, the public and China have all been intermixed, perhaps with more weight given to No. 1 than was right'. This lecture explores the life, loyalties and legacy of an Irishman who found himself at the epicentre of international geopolitical competition during the twilight of imperial China.

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