The Diaries of Sir Robert Hart

Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911, 2nd IG 1864-1911) wrote in his diary during his long career in imperial China on a daily basis. The 77-volume diaries start from 27 August 1854 and end on 19 April 1908. During this period, he was deeply involved in every single project of China’s modernisation and witnessed the restoration and decline of the Qing empire. Although he would usually claim to be  an outsider, Hart’s role in the imperial government was incontrovertibly that of  an insider. He was highly trusted by the Throne, the Manchu royals, and Chinese officials. Not only was Hart the most powerful foreigner in nineteenth-century China but also one of the most powerful officials in the imperial court.

As Qing officials’ diaries are usually plain and lack explicit descriptions, Hart’s diaries provide us with a complete account of Qing China’s paces in catching up with the world in the nineteenth century and with pen protraits of his Chinese colleagues. His diaries disclose the true thoughts of the Empress Dowadger, Prince Gong, Wenxiang, etc, towards China’s modernisation. His diaries, in other words, can be considered as a piece of modern Chinese history.

The 77-volume diaries are preserved at the Library of the Queen’s University of Belfast (The Sir Robert Hart Collection at the Queen’s University of Belfast, click here).  In 1970, Harvard modern Chinese historian John King Fairbank and his research team started to decipher Hart’s handwritings in the diaries. With the assistance of Richard Smith, they successfully transcribed, edited, and annotated volumes I-VIII and published: Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854-1863 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), and Robert Hart and China’s Early Modernization: His Journals 1863-1866 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). In 2005 the Library of Queen’s University of Belfast finished the draft of the transcriptions of Volume XXXI (for the transcriptions, click here).