Men who loved books: the Literary Legacy of the Foreign Community in East Asia, 1860-1930

This research project aims to demonstrate that the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, though admittedly not a literary concept, represents an effective angle to research the literary legacy of the foreign community in East Asia from 1860 to 1930.  CMCS employees such as Robert Hart, H. B. Morse, Paul King, J. O. P. Bland, Putnam Weale, E. B. Drew, Augustine Henry, etc. were, in the words of long-time Customs Commissioner Paul King; “men who loved books”; and their lengthy residence and active careers in East Asia resulted in a flood of writings, including historical studies, memoirs, diaries, novels, travel writings, etc..  In consequence, over time the CMCS became an informal research and publishing power house with an output similar to that of a major modern academic institution.  The project will endeavor to map the literary legacy of the CMCS and this in turn will make possible further reflections on Jürgen Osterhammel’s contention in his Die Entzauberung Asiens: Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert (1998) that by the nineteenth century the exotic and mysterious China of the seventeenth century had been thoroughly “disenchanted” in Western eyes.

The project is supported by an interdisciplinary team consisting of a principal investigator who is a literary specialist, viz., Henk Vynckier, Professor of English and European Literature at Tunghai University in Taichung, and a co-investigator who is a historian, viz. Fan I-chun, a historian and senior researcher of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei.  The project is funded by a two-year grant by Taiwan’s National Science Council and the project implementation date is August 2012 to July 2014.

Report on Henk Vynckier’s visit to London and Bisham, UK; Feb. 19-23, 2013.

On Jan. 19, 2013 Henk Vynckier presented a lecture entitled “Men who loved books – The literary legacy of Robert Hart and the Chinese Maritime Customs Service” at the Royal Asiatic Society in London at the invitation of Alison Ohta, the Director of the RAS.   The lecture was recorded and published online as a podcast by the Backdoor Broadcasting Corporation, the major academic webcasting company in the UK, and can be accessed at

On Feb. 22, he also participated in a Sir Robert Hart Commemorative Event in the small Berkshire town of Bisham, where Robert Hart is buried in the cemetery of Bisham Parish Church.  The Commemoration, which was organized by Tsai Weipin of RoyalHollowayCollege, was attended by academics from the UK, China and Taiwan; descendants of Robert Hart and other English employees of the Chinese Customs; government representatives, and the media.  During the commemoration, the renovated tomb of Robert Hart was rededicated by Vicar Sarah Fitzgerald of BishamChurch and Hans van de Ven of CambridgeUniversity and Robert Bickers of Bristol University made short presentations regarding the significance of Robert Hart and his career in China.

The next day Vynckier participated in a Roundtable at RoyalHollowayCollege with Professors Robert Bickers (Bristol), Li Yan (Vice-President, China Customs Institute) and Wu Songdi (FudanUniversity).  The Roundtable was entitled “Connections” and focused on two topics: Chinese studies in the UK and China, and relevant materials – past and present” and “the history of the CMCS, and EU-China relations”.

(posted March 2013)