…and then they expect you to pick a career

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Robert Hart - provided from http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-jw-s18 under a creative commons license

Robert Hart*

In the last couple of weeks I have been reading through the early diaries of Robert Hart for a forthcoming BBC radio programme on his life.  Hart was a man who started his career in China as a lowly interpreter in the treaty port back water of Ningbo, but became the Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service.  Hart’s early reflections left me with a few thoughts.  Firstly, the benefit of knowing, in hindsight, that he would become the most influential foreigner in China gives the sense of urgency and dissatisfaction expressed in his early diaries great potency.  Hart, like many 20 year olds, myself included, did not settle easily into his path and was subject to frequent prevarications, as the diary entries below, written during his time in Ningbo, suggest:

25 November, 1854:  ‘my employment is not at all congenial.  I have still a longing after the Wesleyan Ministry.  And indeed, I think I wd be better and happier at home.  I shd not be at all surprised if by this time next year I shd be on my way home round the Cape.’+

3 January, 1855: ‘I feel more pleasure now in working at the Chinese … I am determined, if I stay in China, and if my health be spared to make myself a first-rate Chinese Scholar, in order that I may be really useful in some way as a Christian in forwarding the great work.’

17 March, 1855: ‘I’m very sorry I came to China.  If I had remained at home, I would have been certain of an East India appointment.  I wish I could be satisfied with my condition – I’m quite miserable.’

There is something that feels relevant to the twenty first-century reader about the angst of an early-twenty something trying to give meaning to their life.  For Hart, ever the workaholic, this meaning naturally came through his choice of career.  Hart’s quandary also gives us a window into the world of a nineteenth-century imperial careerist.  In enumerating the options open to him, Hart reflects the types of careers he and his contemporaries might pursue.  These centred largely on the opportunities provided through the connections forged by the British Empire.  For the educated British subject, a whole world of career possibilities was imagined.

Secondly, Hart’s prevarication between the life of a Weslyan minister, a Chinese translator and an East India Company administrator offers a cautionary reminder to the reader as historian that contingency is central in shaping the lives of individuals and historical events.  Hart did not see his rise to power and influence coming, and nor did his contemporaries. Yet just 8 years after the diary entries above, Hart was in charge of the collection of China’s foreign customs revenues and in a position to instigate a number of other modernising projects for the Qing, including the purchase of a steam navy and the construction of lighthouses on the coast.  Yet none of this was inevitable.  What if Hart had gone home to the ministry?  Hart’s diplomacy, in both senses of that word, were legendary.  After spending just three weeks with the ministers of the newly formed Qing dynasty office for foreign affairs, the Zongli yamen, they were referring to him as ‘our Hart’.  When the first foreign Inspector General of the Qing customs service was fired, largely as a result of his failure to be diplomatic or to acknowledge the concerns of Qing officials, Hart was the natural choice to replace him.  Without Hart, the nascent fragile customs service, the basis for much future Sino-foreign collaboration, might have collapsed altogether.

*(provided by http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-jw-s18 under a creative commons license)

+ All quotations are taken from Robert Sir Hart and Others, Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854-1863 (Cambridge, Mass: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1986)

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