Like most historical fiction novels which center on actual personalities and events, My Splendid Concubine traces the true-life exploits of Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911), the celebrated expatriate official credited for bringing China (kicking and screaming) out of the medieval ages and into the 20th century. So influential was this Irishman, scholars continue to debate over who is more deserving of the honorary title "Godfather of China's Modernism:" Sir Robert Hart or Deng Xiaoping, architect of China's new economic reform.
Lofthouse, thankfully, leaves the drier discourse to the academicians and instead beguilingly explores Robert Hart's riotous first years in the Orient, namely all the sex and violence that an expat living in mid-1800's China (what this reviewer calls the "Chaos Dynasty") would most likely encounter. Set to a tumultuous backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion, opium wars and foreign invasion, Concubine opens with an indelible portrait of besieged China emerging from its 5,000 year-old cocoon to realize that it just may no longer be the Center of the World it once thought itself as.
The days of nobles sipping tea by their lotus ponds are over; Shanghai and Hong Kong have become "foreign devil" enclaves of ill-mannered, lusty European merchants ("To gold and silver and the women it buys!") capitalizing on China's untapped treasures: opium, silk and spice by day...virgin teenage girls by night. Such prurience might be too much for some readers to handle, however, as Lofthouse quotes the sagacious governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, advising a newly-arrived Hart, "Just because it is shocking, don't turn away from such lessons in life."
Not all of Concubine's literary cast are as erudite, and Lofthouse is obliged to painfully reveal many prejudiced discussions between Hart's compatriots which, sadly, to this day remain the general consensus of China by the intolerant west: "The Chinese can't manage things...Everyone in China is out to fill his purse with silver, and there is little or no concern about the smooth running of the government or the economy. These fools are penny wise and pound-foolish. Stealing and telling lies is a way of life here."
They are naïve statements against the Chinese heard all too often in the din of modern-day expat haunts around Beijing and Shanghai, but neither Lofthouse nor his 19th century protagonist buys into the stereotype; Hart diligently sets out to understand China's oft-misunderstood culture for himself despite the arrogance of his western counterparts who say of the Chinese, "It is their place to understand us. We don't have to understand them."
An unfortunate attitude many China expats (whom Hart refers to as "spoilers of the earth") share, yes, but if Hart's colleagues embody all of our fears and confusions about China, then we come to see Hart himself as our understanding and our empathy. He is the tourist most foreigners in China strive to be in spite of our own intolerances, and while Hart's keen observations of 1850's China may be strikingly similar to those witnessed even in 2008 ("People don't change as the dynasty does," writes the ever-profound Lofthouse), bigotry no longer has a welcome seat at the table of the new millennium.
My Splendid Concubine is a thought-provoking novel about attitudes and cultures, but Lloyd Lofthouse is a masterful yarn-spinner as well, weaving a well-balanced dose of suspense and page-turning action. Posted as a rookie customs official in coastal Zhejiang province's Ningbo along the Yangtze River Delta, 20 year-old Hart is suddenly forced out of his sheltered office gig and finds himself involved in a skirmish against Taiping rebels, a true-life 15-year uprising by Chinese peasants against the Qing Dynasty government resulting in over 30 million casualties.
Himself a Vietnam vet, Lofthouse paints battle as blood-red as it surely must be. Armed with western muzzles "spitting jagged orange flames of death," Hart takes his first life, but not without the same dumbfounding, bile-inducing reaction that may have come straight from the author's own memory: "He had just killed someone. The thought numbed him for a moment. It was good that his weapons were thinking for him."
It is during this scene of bedlam that our protagonist meets Ayaou, a teenage boat girl whom Hart rescues along with her family. In turn, Ayaou's father offers her and her sister for sale as concubines to their protectors.
Hart is at once disgusted and stirred by the thought of "taking bids on her virginity," but admits to himself that "it bothered him more that he found the idea tempting." Herein lays the genius of My Splendid Concubine, for Lofthouse portrays the legendary Sir Robert Hart not as an icon of righteousness that his future bronze statue in Shanghai Square would convey to the masses, but as a layman conflicted between the values of his faith and the temptations of an exotic country, summed up in one lucid sentence: "Though it appalled him, Robert still wanted to understand."
The thought of purchasing a woman "like a chair or a piece of art" may disturb 21st century readers as much as it did Robert Hart two centuries ago, but the fact is that concubinage was a socially accepted practice. Chinese emperors traditionally kept thousands of concubines to enhance the royal bloodline; in turn, European merchants residing in imperial China mimicked this form of quasi-matrimonial relationship on a smaller scale.
Lofthouse's Hart is not an idol; he is a flawed man, a real human being who is no stranger to vice or sin. In his dark past he has contracted syphilis from British college girls, he cheats with his new boss's girlfriend upon arriving in China, and now he is faced with temptation in the form of pubescent flesh that can be had for mere pocket change. It is a range of emotions any man traversing the forlorn roads of the word knows all to well: "He was a traveler on a lonely journey, who occasionally embraced human affections the same way that he took the sun and water."
Robert Hart recognizes that "he hadn't sailed halfway around the world to indulge in women," yet longs to escape the "stifling morality of England." In order to shake his Victorian guilt, Hart realizes he must separate himself with Victoria, and allows himself to fall for teenage Ayaou - not in the heartless manner of his foreign friends who see Chinese women merely as "bed warmers" until returning to their native countries ("Most of us leave China eventually, and the women stay behind. It isn't an appealing fate"), but as an honest person longing for true love: "He hoped that she was the woman he'd always dreamed of."
Theirs is a passionate relationship. Each initially doing their best to restrain themselves ("He twined his fingers together and locked his hands behind his back lest they escape and reach for her."), curiosity and rapture quickly overcomes Hart as much as it does the virgin Ayaou. Lofthouse voyeuristically pulls away the nine-paneled silk screen from their oft-used bed, but approaches their couplings with literary deftness, arousing the reader with gentle romance ("He kissed her neck and ran his tongue along her smooth flesh. She tasted like the ocean."), before assaulting us with a climax of vivid XXX-rated details, the likes of which only lascivious historical fiction storyteller Gary Jennings heretofore could only conjure.
Regardless of the novel's title, Ayaou is not nor does she ever become within the parameters of the story Sir Robert Hart's "concubine." For all intents and purposes, she is stolen property liberated by Hart from a rival whom he considers undeserving of Ayaou's affections. Beginning with their first embrace, Hart and Ayaou's entire relationship is founded on deceit and infidelity ("What they had was like a fantasy, and he wondered when it would dissolve"), which lends to the uncomfortable sense of anxiety felt throughout the book, ominously hanging over the reader like a dark cloud, as would any illicit affair - cheating can't possibly have a happy ending, especially in the lawlessness of 19th century China.
Hart's true splendid concubine, bought and paid for with opium-tainted Chinese RMB, is in fact Ayaou's little sister, a pubescent firecracker named Shao-mei. Hart gallantly purchases Shao-mei to spare her from the talons of his fellow foreigners. Only fourteen years old, the blossoming Shao-mei is admittedly even more desirable to the insatiable Brit than Ayaou, but Hart is intent on staying faithful to the woman who "fought her way into his heart."
Curious of the pleasures she hears through the wall at night, the jealous younger sister Shao-mei attempts to seduce Hart at every turn: "I'm not a finished woman, but I am a woman." She slid her hands down the length of her nude torso to her vulva..."If you aren't pleased because I don't have full breasts yet, I promise that they'll grow to the size of tomatoes in a few months. I'm not lying. See, these nipples were not like this a few weeks ago." She fondled a nipple and it hardened and stood at attention."
While the China around him is literally on fire with opium wars and Taping rebellions, Sir Robert Hart is on the front lines of his own private "battle of the flesh." Adding to Hart's bittersweet frustrations, Ayaou uses Chinese logic to try to persuade him into enjoying her juvenile sister, so that the three can live together in harmony: "If I am your happiness, by having her you will achieve double happiness." It is arguably every man's fantasy, but Hart's Wesleyan beliefs, and fear of sibling rivalry, prohibit him from indulging in the sisterly threesome.
"Your passion is like an ocean," Ayaou admits to Hart one night after he refuses to enter Shao-mei ('s chamber). Read more ›