Robert Hart’s Diaries and Letters: Life Writing by an Old China Hand

The 77 volume private diary of Robert Hart, the Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1865-1911, has long been valued by historians as a goldmine of information regarding the history of nineteenth century China.  The purpose of this grant project funded by the National Science Council, however, is to approach it as an example of the genre of life writing and bring the methods of literary scholarship and biography to bear on it.  One aspect of this new approach is to locate the Hart diary within the English life writing tradition and compare it to the work of major diarists such as, e.g., John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Frances Burney, and others.  Another aspect is to examine the textual constructs and rhetorical strategies utilized by Hart to represent the intercultural dimensions of his life in China and embed notions of class, gender, race, self, and otherness in the diary.  It is hoped that this project will add to our understanding of Robert Hart, the East-West intercultural encounter and the role of life writing in the age of empire.

The project investigators are Henk Vynckier, Professor of English and European Literature at Tunghai University in Taichung, and Chih-yun Chang, a historian and specialist of the CMCS at the Academia Sinica in Taipei.   So far this cooperation has resulted in three conference papers, two of which were presented in the 2011 and 2012 conferences of the Humanities Research Center at Sun Yat Sen University in Kaohsiung and one at the “Framing Lives” conference of the International Autobiography/Biography Association at Australian National University in Canberra in July 2012, and one critical article entitled “The Life-Writing of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, 1863-1908” in the Dec. 2012 issue of Comparative Literature and Culture Web (Purdue University Press).