Robert Hart began as a humble British interpreter who, throughout his time in China in the 19th century, came to love and embrace this culture so different from his own Irish roots. Over the years he grew to really understand the Confucian and Taoist principles of honor and piety, and the Chinese took notice of his devotion to their values and culture. Hart's love of and genuine respect for the Chinese customs and way of life set him apart from the other "foreign devils" whose only goals were to manipulate and hoodwink the Chinese in order to make a profit.
Hart rose in rank as an interpreter and soon found himself promoted to work for the Chinese as a local inspector of customs, eventually to become the Inspector General of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service. Hart recognized that in order to succeed in his role as a virtual go-between for the two nations, he must always handle any issue with the utmost poise and finesse. He often found himself surrounded by peers and superiors who did not demonstrate the same level of respect towards the Chinese as he did. Many of the British saw the Chinese as barbarian heathens who needed to be converted to Christianity, and it took a lot of restraint on his part to hold his tongue where his ignorant superiors were concerned.
Hart's ability to smooth over tricky political situations and his growing reputation as a man who was true to his word eventually caught the attention of the Dynasty, and in particular, the brother of the emperor, Prince Kung. The significance of the title "Our Hart" is not to be taken lightly-Hart was the only foreigner the Dynasty trusted, and over time he cultivated a friendship and business relationship with Kung, which enabled him the influence necessary to make even greater improvements in the Chinese political system. He began by rooting out corruption from wherever it existed, and although Kung and the rest of the ministers were at first skeptical of his foreign methods, any doubts were soon quashed, as Hart's approaches quickly proved vital to the stability of the Dynasty. Hart became so endeared to the Chinese that they referred to him as "Our Hart."
Throughout the many changes of location and tricky situations Robert encounters, his concubine Ayaou remains his rock and constant. At the heart of this fascinating book is their love story. Robert learns that Ayaou has merits that exceed beyond the bedroom; in fact he utilizes her knowledge of Chinese culture and social protocol to his advantage and takes note from her inherent Chinese wisdom. The book begins after the brutal murder of Ayaou's sister (and Robert's second concubine) Shao-mei by one of Robert's rivals, and Robert reflects on happier times spent with Shao-mei and Ayaou throughout the course of the novel. Shao-mei's murder is a turning point in his life that causes him to constantly question the safety of his surroundings. Realizing that he is not only responsible for himself, but also for the lives of his "Chinese family," Robert learns to find happiness again but vows to avenge Shao-mei's death and seek vengeance from her murderers.
Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine is the sequel to the multi award winning My Splendid Concubine: A Novel by Lloyd Lofthouse. Although I did not read My Splendid Concubine, I did feel that this truly was a standalone novel that did not require its predecessor to be read in order for one to enjoy the story. The book was a really quick read for me, and one by which I was completely captivated the whole way through. My favorite aspect of this novel was reading about all the political issues facing China during the 19th century. Between the Taiping Rebellions, the Opium Wars, the tension among China and Western Europe, and the political mistrust between the Manchu and Han Chinese, Robert Hart certainly had his work cut out for him. One can certainly see why he was so very deserving of the title "The Godfather of China's Modernism".
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from a publicist for review.