Sir Robert Hart

Sir Robert Hart on ‘China and the Chinese’

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol.III, no. 10, January 1909, pp. 156-57.

One of the most successful weekly dinners of the session was that of November 20th, when Sir Robert Hart, GCMG, was the guest of the Club. Friar Edward Clodd was Prior for the evening, and in inviting the guest to open a conversation on the appropriate topic of ‘China and the Chinese’ he delivered a gracious message from Friar George Meredith, who said that he regarded Sir Robert Hart with the deepest respect, because he had influenced the East with all that was best in the West.

Sir Robert Hart said that when he went to China in 1854 the Taiping Rebellion was giving trouble, and after it was over and the Mandarins returned home they were surprised to find that so many dues had been honestly collected and distributed.

The coast was then infested by pirates. At Ningpo twenty-eight Canton vessels had appeared, and some British ships were sent to blow them up. After the Chinese junks had submitted to the authorities they were converted into the first Chinese navy, but only fourteen of them were put into commission. The rest went on with piracy as usual. At that time convoying vessels was a profitable trade, and there were dangers of many kinds to avert. All foreigners were about to be killed on one occasion at the place where he resided, and his servants left. Some Portuguese vessels were driven into the Ningpo River and destroyed. At the nick of time a French corvette arrived from South America and saved the situation. The circumstance was accidental, and he often thought how, when his career was spoken about, everyone is more or less a creature of circumstance.

He was then transferred to Canton and to Sir Harry Parkes, and was present at the first experiments made with the electric telegraph between the Porcelain Pagoda and the Jetty at Canton. Sir Harry Parkes was at one end of the line with a Mandarin, and he (Sir Robert Hart) with the Viceroy of Canton at the other. But the answers given to the questions arranged beforehand had nothing to do with the inquiries made. The sceptical Chinese made such replies purposely in order to puzzle the Europeans, and confirm their disbelief in any barbarian invention, because the Chinamen held that everything that could be invented had been produced ages ago in their own country. Thus, gunpowder was invented in China long before it was discovered in Europe. But it had never been used for killing. The Chinaman had employed it solely for fireworks and harmless crackers.

Printing, again, had been in vogue in China long before Caxton had appeared in the West. A great Chinese teacher had appeared 500 years B.C. He was Confucius. When asked if there was a God, he replied that he did not know, but he advised his questioners to act as if God existed and they were in His presence. Confucian ethics, as looked upon and acted up to by the Chinese, were in many ways superior to the ethics of Christianity. The Chinaman said: ‘When you want to do anything, you call in force. We abominate that sort of thing. Reason is what we look to.’ Yet, when a Chinaman was unreasonable, he could be very unreasonable indeed. He (Sir Robert Hart) spent seven weeks in the Legation at the time of the Boxer rising, and if the Chinese had chosen to push home their attack they could have finished the Europeans easily in fifteen minutes.

Formerly, in China, the only way of rising to the front was by examination, and the man of brains was the most powerful. The educated Chinaman had very clear views concerning might and right. Right, he considered, was unchangeable, whilst might was changeable according to circumstances. Whilst following the ethics of Confucius the thoughtful Chinaman regarded the European advocacy of might as an act of retrogression in civilisation. But, owing to that influence, the Chinese examinations had now been modified, and Western ideas were being adopted.

The military spirit was being cultivated. It would not be aroused for a generation or more, because in China things went slowly. Even then, the Chinaman would not be against the world. The nation was making itself strong because it was necessary in self-defence. Happily for the world, it would be a long time before China got away from Confucian ethics. The Emperor was dead. He was a man of gentle nature. The Empress also was dead. She was a woman of extraordinary ability. What the new Emperor would do it was difficult to say, but his father was likely to carry on friendship with the other Powers for the advancement of the Chinese nation.

Railways, telegraphs, the postal system and the publication of newspapers
were advancing. If China was treated in a kind and sympathetic way, the West had nothing to fear from that quarter. But the four hundred millions would some day be a very great nation.

Sir Robert Hart spoke with great fluency on many matters relating to China, and he was followed by Sir Alfred Lyall, who contributed sympathetically to the conversation. Other speakers were Mr Collins, Friar Mackenzie, Mr Macartney, Friar Foster Fraser, Friar Osman Edwards; the Prior summing up before Sir
Robert Hart concluded a memorable evening by briefly replying to various questions which had been put during the evening.