Friday, June 8, 2012

Love, Trade, and China: An interview with historical fiction author Lloyd Lofthouse

Today I'm talking with Lloyd Lofthouse author of a series of historical fiction books, The Concubine Saga, about Sir Robert Hart, an important figure in the British Empire's early contacts in China.


1) Please give us an overview of The Concubine Saga books.

The Concubine Saga covers the first decade of Robert Hart's fifty-four years in China, which is a bitter-sweet love story of a man struggling with his moral Victorian compass in an alien culture while the bloodiest rebellion in human history rages around him at the same time that the Opium Wars were ravaging China with Western drugs. China's last imperial empire and its culture were under attack from several directions.

Before the novel ends, Hart leaves the British consulate where he was an interpreter and goes to work for the Emperor of China and soon becomes the only foreigner the emperor trusts. The foundation of Hart's success in China is his live in dictionary and lover, Ayaou, his Chinese concubine. That interracial romance and love story is the foundation of The Concubine Saga.

2) What inspired you to write books about Sir Robert Hart?

In 1999, when my wife and I were dating (we married in December of that year), she mentioned I might be interested in an Irishman named Robert Hart that went to China in 1854 at age 19. I Googled Hart and discovered that Harvard University Press had published his journals and letters, which I bought and read.

His story fascinated me—especially his love and admiration for Ayaou. However, shortly before his death, he burned the journals that focused on his early years with Ayaou covering 2 years and nine months (July 29 1855 to 20 March 1858) and then another four and one half years (December 6, 1858 to 6 June 1863) and blacked out passages in the surviving journals in an attempt to erase his years with Ayaou from history even though it is obvious that he loved and missed her. A surviving letter he wrote to his agent decades later established this fact.

Writing The Concubine Saga was my way to bring this bitter-sweet love story to life so it would not be forgotten.

3) What do you think his fundamental legacy is in terms of East-West relations?

Harvard scholars said it best in Entering China's Service, Robert Hart's Journals, 1851—1863 when they said Hart was considered the godfather of China's modernism. He loved and respected Chinese culture and wanted it to survive on its own. He wanted the British Empire and China to be friends. To achieve this, Hart, as Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, modernized China's schools so they could compete with the West, organized a postal system, helped modernize China's military and he negotiated treaties with foreign powers. For his service, both the West and China honored him. Britain's Queen Victoria knighted Hart as a Baron and the Emperor of China elevated him to Chinese nobility. Even the Vatican honored Hart along with a dozen other European nations.

4) Why did you choose to focus your work so much on his romantic interests?

After reading his journals and letters, I saw Robert Hart as a man first instead of a bureaucrat, diplomat and statesman, which came later as he matured and moved up in rank. Soon after arriving in China, it was obvious that he was a lonely 19 year old man yearning for female companionship. In fact, his desire for a woman to love seemed to dominate his thinking and his guilt before he met Ayaou, and she became his concubine about a year after he arrived in China. It wasn't easy for him to bridge cultures this way and his guilt dealing with the transition and temptation was obvious, which is why I focused on the relationship with Ayaou and all the angst that came with it. In fact, he arrived in 1854 to learn the language while working as an interpreter for the British consulate in Ningpo and then Canton during the Arrow War.

The fact that I focused on this love story has been mentioned by several of the novel's critics. However, what these reviewers seem to have missed is the fact that Robert Hart arrived in China at age 19 in 1854 and did not speak a word of Chinese. At first, he worked as a low ranked interpreter for the British consulate but had to learn the language first. In time he gained rank in the consulate but did not start working for the Emperor of China until the middle of 1859, about five years after arriving in China.

One could make a strong case that he arrived as an immature young man, and due to his relationship with Ayaou, he matured into the man that he would become later. That metamorphosis into the great man that he would become was not an easy journey. If he had not make embarrassing moral mistakes (according to Victorian England), why did he destroy more than seven years of his journals covering most of his first ten years in China—the crucial years he was with Ayaou.

5) What sort of research did you do to try and get into the head of Sir Hart?

First, I bought and read Hart's Journals and letters, which were published by the Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press. Later, I would expand this research to develop a stronger understanding of China and its culture.

6) Historical fiction is always a balancing act between historical record, interpretation, and outright fictionalization in service to the story. What sort of particular balance did you strive to maintain? Were you fixated on pure accuracy or did you take a bit more creative license?

I would have to say I took a bit more creative license since Robert Hart destroyed journals covering more than seven years of his first decade in China during a period of time that he wasn't the famous man he would become later.

However, I did focus on historical accuracy regarding the tapestry of China's history at this time, which is why I studied The Taiping Rebellion, The Opium Wars, Chinese culture, etc.

For example, on my research shelves, I have Lin Yutang's My Country and My People; Sterling Seagrave's Dragon Lady; March C. Elliot's The Manchu Way; Jonathan D. Spence's God's Chinese Son; Spence's To Change China; hundreds of pages of Internet research I printed out and kept in binders; and more than thirty other books on China, its culture and history.

7) What is the most surprising thing you learned about Sir Hart during your research?

The most surprising thing I learned came from the Harvard scholars that produced and edited Entering China's Service, Robert Hart's Journals, 1854—1863.

On page 154, a Harvard editor wrote, "Hart's years of liaison with Ayaou (roughly 1857 – 1865) gave him his fill of romance, including both is satisfaction and its limitations. For whatever reason, after that his need for feminine companionship declines as he steadily and inexorably became more enamored of managing the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service." Note: Sterling Seagrave (page 150 of the paperback of Dragon Lady) says Hart's relationship with Ayaou started in May of 1855. The clues are there—the fact that he burned the journals starting in July of 1855.

If Hart had his fill of romance to the degree that he felt compelled to destroy his own journals that documented that journey, it must have been something extraordinary but unacceptable to the Victorian moral code.

8) There's a tendency toward a rather Manichean view of historical figures. Though no monster, Sir Hart also certainly was no angel, especially as a young man. Do you think this will hamper people's ability to respect his other accomplishments?

I see no reason why people cannot accept that he was human with all the frailties that means while still deserving credit for his accomplishments. Hart spent fifty-four years in China and most of his first decade is shrouded in mystery since he destroyed more than seven years of his own journals. In fact, a few critics seem to see me as the monster instead of Hart for writing about this human side of his life where the flesh and temptation tends to rule the decisions most young men make when it comes to women.

In addition, it is documented that while he was a student at the Queens College in Belfast ages 15 to 19, that he drank too much, seduced too many women and, according to medical records, was treated for syphilis. It stand to reason that he arrived in China a few months after graduation at age 19 and was the same young man—maturity a fame would come later. However, it is obvious that with Ayaou, he lived out all of his romantic fantasies and that is what I set out to write about in the Concubine Saga.

9) In many ways, China is not the same country that it was when Sir Hart arrived so many years ago. If Sir Hart could visit today's China do you think he'd find it foreign or familiar?

I think he would not see it as foreign but also it would not be familiar. I believe he would be pleased. The education system he adapted for China so it could compete with the West is still there and improving. The postal system he created is still working. When he lived in China, more than 90% of the population lived in severe poverty and today about 13% live in poverty with less than 3% living in severe poverty. In 1854, more than 86% of Chinese were illiterate but today less than 7% are.

During his 54 years in China, there was an annual famine that caused hundreds of thousands and even millions to die in one or more provinces but since 1961, although there have still been droughts in China, there have been no recorded deaths from starvation.

Many in the West have criticized and demonized the Chinese Communist Party but the CCP, starting in 1949, is the only government in China's long history to actually do something about the poverty and annual famines that plagued China for thousands of years. Yes, Hart would recognize positive changes that many in the West refuse to see.

What Hart wanted for the Chinese people has come to pass. I do not think he would be concerned about the Communist Party ruling China as an authoritarian one-party republic, since he lived during a still expanding, often brutal, Imperial British Empire. Hart wanted the quality of life for the Chinese people to improve and it has—dramatically compared to when he lived there.

10) Considering the incredible amount of research you put into this book, I can imagine it might be difficult to follow up with a new series. That being said, are you working any other projects right now?

Yes, I am currently revising and editing a completed manuscript I wrote that is set in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The title is Better a Dead Hero, and I plan to have it out in a few months. The heart (no pun intended) of this novel is another bitter-sweet romance between a US Marine and a Vietnamese woman, who is also a reluctant member of the National Liberation Front known to most in the West as the Viet Cong.

Thanks, LLoyd.

If you'd like to read more from Lloyd, you can visit his webpage

The Concubine Saga can be purchased at Amazon as a collection or as its component novels, My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart, Elegy.


Teddy Rose said...

Thanks so much for taking part in the tour!

J.A. Beard said...

My pleasure.

Harvee Lau said...

Excellent interview!

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Harvee.