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Foreigners in China
My Splendid Concubine, a novel by Lloyd Lofthouse.
Reviewed by Cool Han

Vast are the oceans between China and the West, cognition and sensibility, history and reality, but author Lloyd Lofthouse is determined to cross them with his 365-page skiff, My Splendid Concubine.

Based on fifty-four years worth of personal diaries belonging to the “Godfather of China’s modernism” Robert Hart (1835-1911), Lofthouse is a master ship builder. Constructed over 9 years, My Splendid Concubine doesn’t just present a single plank of Robert Hart’s life; Lofthouse artfully crafts a solid, captivating story of love and intimacy out of the true-life timber of history.

Supernumerary interpreter for British vice-consulate in Ningpo, the Irish Methodist-born Sir Robert Hart became Inspector General for Chinese Maritime Customs, chief adviser for the Emperor, and Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent of the Ch’ing dynasty. He was also knighted by Queen Victoria of Great Britain with a grand cross and a baronetcy — titles all suggesting power, prestige and officialdom. As Lofthouse notes in his preface, “No Westerner has ever achieved Robert Hart’s status and level of power in China.” But as we read in My Splendid Concubine, a man’s identity is easily lost in his titles.

A former journalist, Lloyd Lofthouse digs deep into the ambiguity of history to satiate his curiosity for the truth. When he rekindled his candle in the dark, he rekindled the spirit of Hart at the same time. Lofthouse’s 30 years of teaching experience is also an indication of his amazing patience and endurance. After reading his work of historical fiction My Splendid Concubine, I dare say no one this century knows Hart better than Lofthouse.

Forming the keystone of Lofthouse’s masterpiece is not a dry reiteration of history but a racy tale of inter-racial love. Ayaou, a 16-year-old sing-song girl of a boat people family, might be only a “marvelous bed warmer” in the eyes of Hart’s western counterparts, but to him she is “precious jade,” his true love. He might own her, but she possesses him.

After Ayaou saves Hart’s life in the bloody Taiping conflict, their life’s tempo segues from presto to andante, enabling them to take a long breathe and enjoy the art of life — especially in the bedroom: “Robert turned to Ayaou and reached for her like a hungry stallion running toward fertile grassy fields,” while Ayaou felt “she had to restrain herself during the day to keep her hands off him.”

Enter Shao-mei, Ayaou’s younger sister, who Hart agrees to protect from being scourged by Shao-mei’s former master. Can Hart adhere to his commitment to Ayaou and his strict Wesleyan faith, or will lust drive Hart into a forbidden love triangle between two sisters?

Lofthouse wants his readers to see Hart not only as an historical icon but as a man with desires and flaws, vulnerability and ambivalence. Though Hart rebuffed Shao-mei’s begging to become his second concubine and received a “I hate you” full of heart-melting love and innocence, seeing Shao-mei’s “skimpy and sexy” outfit “he was mad with the desire to get her clothes back off and run his tongue over her naked body.”

Robert Hart certainly isn’t someone easy to portray, nor is the Ch’ing dynasty a period that can be simply summarized, yet Lloyd Lofthouse tackles two large and difficult subjects with fascinating enthusiasm. If history is “his story”, then Lofthouse offers a version that speaks to the heart of men AND women, Chinese AND Western.

Lofthouse weaves amazingly vivid details into Robert Hart’s immersing process. Hart was confused when, while watching the opera of The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Chinese audience cursed the first wife of Chah-Lian who murdered his third wife rather than blame the selfish and irresponsible character. Lofthouse uses a Chinese proverb to indicate Hart’s cultivation and transitional way of thinking: “He had lived here long enough to wet his shoes, as the Chinese saying went, when you walked on the beach.”

Through Ayaou, Shao-mei, his Chinese servant Guan-jiah and teacher Tee Lee Ping, Hart learns to think like the Chinese, gradually becoming Chinese himself in spite of his British face. In the eyes of Lofthouse, Hart is a true hybrid, educated and raised in the Western school of thought but choosing to live out his life in the East.

Lofthouse has a keen eye for striking details, with My Splendid Concubine a bold, panoramic and highly readable page turner. Lofthouse begins his narration of this bittersweet comitragedy with the last scene, where Robert Hart, a third grade civil official of Ch’ing Dynasty draped in an imperial red silk robe, enters the Forbidden City to visit the Empress. Hart’s eyes “had deep lines of sadness etched around them like a parched alluvial plain scarred from ancient catastrophes.” At this point, Robert’s story shifts from euphonic melodrama into an expressionist memoir.

Through a combination of historical fact, anecdote and evocative fictional storytelling, Lofthouse brings alive the infamous Taiping Uprising, which forms the historical context of My Splendid Concubine. Lofthouse, a Vietnam veteran, writes about the brutality and darkness of war as only someone who has witnessed viscous combat - and has lived to tell about it – can. Crossing through the battlefield near the shore, Hart slips and falls to see a naked leg with other parts of the man nowhere to be seen. Bile rushes into his throat when he observes that “the muscles were still twitching.” Fictional storytelling, or a recounting of Lofthouse’s own battlefield experiences.

Lofthouse partially attributes his in-depth knowledge of China and Eastern thought to his wife, Anchee Min, best-selling author of Red Azalea, Empress Orchid and The Last Empress, for it is this Shanghai-born Chinese woman who first introduced Lofthouse to the legend of Robert Hart.

Anchee Min's Empress Orchid and The Last Empress are based on the life of the powerful yet frequently denigrated female leader Tzu Hsi (1834-1908). Having grown up amidst conflicts of ideology and life during China’s Cultural Revolution, Min is wary of “official” history, especially when it concerns women and power.

The anecdotes about Robert Hart and dowager Tzu Hsi heard from Min’s parents gave the famed authoress her first impression of the once-standing bronze statue of Robert Hart in Shanghai. Literary reviews and “references-to-be” then became the compass that helped Lofthouse navigate the dense fogs of history leading to Robert Hart’s mysterious heart and soul.

In her foreword to My Splendid Concubine, Anchee Min writes: “I am grateful for what Lloyd has done, especially when building a bridge of communication between China and the West is crucial to our survival.”

These motives are the powerful motor behind Lloyd Lofthouse’s skiff. And I believe good fortune is with Lofthouse and his skiff. One day it will arrive across the vast oceans, bringing a mutual understanding and trust between China and the West.

My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse is for sale on Amazon.Com:

Lofthouse can be contacted directly via his official homepage:


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