A distinction must be made before I get off on the wrong footing with many readers (which I inevitably will) between the system of domestic sexual slavery in China that lasted up to the mid-20th century known as concubinage, and concubines. I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For a particular concubine, the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too. Say you encounter the woman of your dreams — one with your ideal “10” body. I mean the kind of body that would make you cheat on your wife or girlfriend for the very first time. You know what kind of body I’m talking about. There’s not a man around who doesn’t secretly fear this future catastrophe. She also happens to be smart, cultured and talented — poet, belly-dancer, Derrida fan, you name it. And here’s the clincher: she’s into you as well. But there’s a catch. In her country, where you’ve met, you are not allowed to lay a hand on her unless you buy her. No, not a one-shot gig like a prostitute, but really buy her, for good. You can have her all for your very own, provided, of course, you set her up and take care of her, ensure her welfare. On the other hand, she is affordable (credit cards accepted). By purchasing her you will be considerably improving her economic circumstances, and thus her ability to develop her talents and self-actualize to her fullest potential. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? (In fact, this scenario is not all that different from what already exists. It’s called marrying up. The terms are just not so cut and dry.)
In pre-Communist China, such a woman was called a concubine. Most concubines were unwanted teenage girls at the bottom rungs of society, sold off by their parents and purchased by men higher up on the social ladder for their own pleasure or abuse (or sold again in turn to someone else if the concubine doesn’t deliver). Englishman Robert Hart, the hero of Lloyd Lofthouse’s My Splendid Concubine, is initially appalled by concubinage upon first encountering it after his arrival in China, in 1854 to work as a consular assistant. He then turns around and buys one himself, a sexy — and it turns out very horny — fourteen-year old named Shao-mei, for seven pounds (around USD $700-$800 today), from a British sea captain working for Jardine, Matheson & Co., one of China’s chief opium suppliers, who keeps her thirteen-year old sister Lan for himself. (Those nervous at the prospect of reading about sex with underage girls are in for a heavy dose, but you are informed that Sir Robert Hart is a historical figure, many facts about his life are known, including the fact he had a concubine, and consorting with a concubine of whatever age was perfectly legal in old China.)
Actually it was Shao-mei’s elder sister, the sixteen-year old Ayaou, who had originally caught Robert’s eye, but she is clandestinely sold off to Frederick Townsend Ward, the American mercenary hired by the Qing Government to help fight the Taiping rebels, before Hart has the chance to buy her, and he quickly snags Shao-mei instead. He soon finds occasion to steal Ayaou and subsequently offers Ward 500 pounds outright for her (around $50,000 in today’s money! — he had to borrow some of it), but the deal is sidetracked due to chaotic circumstances. Hart sets the two sisters up in a small flat in Ningpo (Ningbo), where he stealthily retreats at night after his day job at the British Legation outside the city walls. He teaches them to read and write, while they instruct him in Chinese culture.
Any city in old China would have been a very scary place for “foreign devils.” Apart from the usual crime and banditry, foreigners tended to be hated, particularly since the first Opium War, and if caught were often attacked and killed with virtual impunity, in the face of inadequate constabulary. Recall the film The Sand Pebbles, with its screaming crowds and summary public executions, to give you an idea of the menacing atmosphere of Chinese cities in the 1920s, when the film is set; things were worse in the 19th century. Hart is required to don disguises, crawl along roofs, carry a gun, etc. Thankfully not all Chinese hate foreigners, and he probably owes his life on numerous occasions to his loyal eunuch servant Guan-jiah, who secretly watches him in bed with the sisters, with Robert’s tacit approval (this will intrigue the reader with voyeur tastes), as well as watching out for his safety when going about.
The cover of My Splendid Concubine is indicative of the book’s approach. It’s a good likeness of Ayaou, corresponding to the description of her in the text, dressed in an elaborate dancing costume whose streamers and sashes suggests at once the stylized sleeves of Peking Opera and the female spirits or apsaras painted in Buddhist cave grottos. The image is beautiful, if the cover is not (the stark background, the ill-chosen font). I mention this because the cover stands in distinct contrast to the covers of typical Chinese historical romances published by major publishing houses in the US, with the same clichéd images of Chinese female in cheongsam holding a fan, face turned away with pensive expression just visible. It is to Lofthouse’s credit that he resolutely avoids slavish conformity to the genre stereotypes.
There are limitations to the writing: transparently linear story-telling in a flat, plain style, with not much in the way of the narrator distance or irony, the layered meanings and perspectives one associates with literary fiction. A more artistically inclined novelist might, for instance, have cast the narrative in multiple first-person voices (a la The Sound and the Fury), allowing the other key players — Ayaou, Guan-jiah, Patridge, or even the repulsive Ward — to tell the story. While easy to read, the language tends to lack incisiveness, and metaphors are often clunky — “lowered eyebrows that looked more like storm clouds”; “The anger locked inside felt like fists pounding to escape’; “His insides were going crazy flopping around like a fish out of water” (though some work: “His back felt as if it were crawling with wasps”). There is also unnecessary repetition of detail and gratuitous scenes that could have been pruned by a good editor.
At the same time, Lofthouse shows a careful attention to well-researched period detail that lends needed visual texture. Ningpo’s business district is “a jumble of storefronts and noodle shops hung with glazed duck carcasses. Dry good shops, job printers, and bakeries were crowded together. Pharmacies sold roots and herbs, powdered deer antlers, withered frogs, and snake glands.” Some set pieces are effective and memorable, such as the ferocious battle with a Taiping rebel camp that was holding friendly hostages ransom: “The breaking dawn sent blood-red cords of pale, washed-out light over the earth along the eastern horizon. Behind them, orange flames from the cannons still flashed from the smoke-filled river. Bodies and body parts were strewn everywhere, but there were still hundreds to fight.”
…a relationship which in its convoluted agony is probably unprecedented in the entire literature on threesomes
The ominous background events to the story — the Taiping attacks, the random banditry, the betrayals and reprisals by equally violent foreign players such as Ward and his ilk — maintain interest throughout the narrative, but it’s Hart’s relationship with Ayaou and Shao-mei that provides the central tension and fascination. He is one very sexually confused man. Most people are sexually confused, and so he serves as the perfect psychological vehicle for the conventional reader to identify with and project normative expectations onto. His servant Guan-jiah, his British compatriots, and Ayaou and Shao-mei themselves all reassure him again and again it’s okay and perfectly logical to have sex with both of his concubines, even in the same bed. But his strict Christian upbringing prevents him from devirginating the horny Shao-mei, since he has already done the same with Ayaou. Their triadic relationship is soon complicated by Ayaou’s growing jealousy (which however is out of character with her initial acceptance of Shao-mei’s sexual participation and seems engineered to extend the narrative). Hart’s moral dilemma is drawn out at tortuous — and torturous — length. Depending on your own openmindedness to polyamorous relationships or lack thereof, you may be gripped by a relationship which in its convoluted agony is probably unprecedented in the entire literature on threesomes, or your patience tried (mine was: C’mon Robert, get over it, just fuck the brains out of Shao-mei which she so desperately needs!). The excruciating dilemma with Shao-mei is finally resolved at the end of Volume 1 (the novel’s first half; the two volumes have been combined in the current edition). I won’t spoil things for the reader by divulging the outcome here.
I will mention another temptress who appears in the novel’s second half, after Hart has achieved career success through his exceptional linguistic (he’s now fluent in spoken and written Chinese) and political skills and has become one of the highest-ranking foreigners in China ever, employed by the Qing Government as Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. Given audience at a formal banquet in the Imperial City in Beijing, where he now resides, he’s introduced to the captivating seventeen-year old Nee-Nee, niece of Prince Gong, who is offered to Hart as a far more practical and politically connected sort of concubine than the lowly Ayaou, a fisherman’s daughter. There is a pointed parallel to their respective meetings, in the way each girl caresses him on first encounter. When he first meets Ayaou, “she stared at him as if she were memorizing his features before gently caressing the back of his hand with her fingertips. Then she nodded and retreated.”
Nee-Nee is a whole new experience. She “held her hand out to shake in the Western style. He took hold of her fingertips and his heart started to pound….He tried not to stare at a perfect red dot painted on her lower lip…She had large eyes that wove a spell over him, and he felt dizzy.” They start talking about literature. “‘Chinese novels can be classified into several types,'” she says. Nothing too impressive here — I recall my own university students in Beijing reciting similar stock phrases to impress. Then Nee-Nee boldly mentions The Plum in the Golden Vase, a sexually explicit fiction classic, still banned in unexpurgated form in the PRC; no student of mine would ever have referred to it unless already on familiar terms with me. Nee-Nee’s “fingers still rested on the back of his hand. When she finished saying the name of the pornographic novel, she ran her fingernails across his skin setting his nerves on fire.” Now that’s a concubine I might be tempted to purchase, if she was within my budget.
“When she finished saying the name of the pornographic novel, she ran her fingernails across his skin setting his nerves on fire.”
I don’t know about you, but I found this passage exciting in a sexually visceral way. There is something about the girl’s self-confidence and nervy attitude, at such a young age, that would disarm any grown man. But apart from one later brief mention, Nee-Nee never returns, even after Ayaou dies tragically young and Hart is left single. Though their love has been steadfast and true, this does not always make for the best fictional material. Both are too sincere and singleminded in their love to present much occasion for literary description. You can’t keep on singing the praises of the same woman. This results in too many of the following types of passage, however touching, even after Ayaou’s passing and he is left with only the memories of her:
The silk sheet slid off revealing her breasts. He couldn’t take his eyes off them, so he pulled the sheet back to cover them. He wanted to pay attention to what she was saying. She might test him to make sure he was listening. She’d been doing that recently.
Nonetheless, there is much to work with in this substantial novel, a solidly conceived, intensely intimate and troubled love story set against an equally fraught and dramatic historical backdrop. For an independently published book it’s doing pretty well, too. Its sales and proceeds would be the envy of many mid-list authors in the legacy publishing industry. In the eight years since it was first published (and three years since the two volumes were combined in the present edition), over 21,000 copies have been sold, and another 41,000 copies downloaded in promotional campaigns, and Lofthouse has earned, he claims, some $45,000 in royalties — and counting.
IC: The upright Robert Hart serves as a kind of moral center to the story, surrounded by a cast of colorful, often unpalatable characters (Hollister, Patridge, Ward). To maintain interest in the protagonist, you’ve concentrated on his numerous personal dilemmas (and psychological torments) — whether to be sexually true to Ayaou, whether to condone the economic benefits to China of the opium business, etc. What drew you originally to the historical figure of Robert Hart, who might not at first glance be regarded as ideal protagonist material?
LL: My wife Anchee Min was researching her book about the Empress Tzu Hsi, Empress Orchid, a few years before its publication in 2004. She mentioned Robert Hart and said I might be interested since my Lofthouse ancestors not only lived in the UK, where the surname originated around the time of King Alfred the Great, but also lived in Ireland. Curious, I Googled Hart and discovered that the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard had published his journals and letters in several volumes. I ordered copies and started reading. Sterling Seagrave mentioned Robert Hart a lot in his Dragon Lady book. I have a copy of that too. Along the way, I learned that Hart had a concubine and later in his life he attempted to erase her from the record. Seagrave said, “He (Hart) had a sleep-in dictionary, his concubine, Ayaou. He had just turned twenty; Ayaou was barely past puberty but was wise beyond her years.” In “Entering China’s Service”, the Harvard scholars also said, “We also infer that experience with Ayaou anchors him permanently in China. … Hart’s years of liaison with Ayaou (about 10 years) gave him his fill of romance, including both its satisfactions and its limitations.”
IC: In your book’s preface, you mentioned spending many hours examining surviving “affidavits” found in secret archives in Shanghai, conducted by Red Guards in the 1960s interrogating people who had been acquainted with Hart. I’m wondering, how could people still alive at that time provide useful or reliable information on a person who lived most of his life in the 19th century? Or is this nugget in the preface merely a fictionalized framing device for the narrative that follows?
LL: My wife spent more time in that “secret archive in Shanghai” than I did. The chemical stench was horrible. Originally, she went to find information on the Empress Tzu Hsi. I had nothing to do with her getting into that place. She was born in Shanghai and grew up there. She spoke Mandarin and the Shanghai dialect and she had the contacts. I didn’t, but by then, I was digging deeper into Hart’s life, and was curious if there was anything about him in that place. After all, the teenage Red Guard seemed to be not only prosecuting the living, but also the dead. For instance, Empress Tzu Hsi.
It’s true that most if not all of the people alive in the late 18th and early 19th century would have been dead by the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution took off in 1965/66, but not all of them. The children and younger family members of many of those people were still alive and so were those who were young when Hart left China in 1908. For instance, a young man in his twenties, working for Hart before he left in 1908, would have been about 60 at the start of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It was possible that these witnesses might have had conversations with older employees who knew about Ayaou and Hart’s relationship
The Cultural Revolution was insane, and we know that the adolescent Red Guard bullies often intimidated witnesses who said anything and even denounced dead people to avoid becoming targets themselves. It’s possible that many of the details were all imagination in an attempt to avoid possible persecution themselves.
In addition, Hart’s personal servant (I changed the name in the novel) was with him from the beginning in 1854 to his death in the UK, and even though he was a eunuch, he had a family in China and might have shared some of his stories about Hart with his family. And of course whoever the witnesses were that the youthful Red Guard dug up probably made up many of the alleged facts to make Hart look morally corrupt even if they had never known or met him, because that was obviously what the Red Guard wanted to hear. If you were in that position, would you tell the Red Guard what they didn’t want to hear?
IC: You describe a local bathhouse in Ningbo circa 1850s as decked out with numerous fascinating features, such as: “A tiger stove that heated the water for tea also heated water for the bathhouse. They just opened the water taps and let the water pour into the grated traps….A burly, older woman with the arms of a wrestler and stumps for legs stepped forward, demanded that Robert take off his clothes, and hand them to her….” Other features you mention, such as the steam room and the skin-cleansing massage with coarse towel, can still be found in Chinese bathhouses today. Are the period details authentic, or did you extrapolate from actual bathhouses in present-day China? And likewise with many other details in the novel (the shops in Ningbo, the teahouses, meals and snacks, etc.), were they researched or inferred?
LL: I worked on this novel for nine years and along the way found the information about the history of bathhouses in China. In addition to collecting a small library on China and its history, I have two, two-inch thick binders full of research I found through Google and printed out. And of course, my wife edited the first rough draft and made suggestions based on her research of the time period for her Empress Orchid novel. I never actually visited any present-day bathhouses in China.
IC: I’m intrigued by the female character of Nee-Nee, niece of Prince Gong, who tries to seduce Hart at a party celebrating Hart’s promotion to Inspector General, a match which would have secured extraordinary advantages for Hart. Their encounter is pregnant with possibility but Nee-Nee is never returned to. I almost feel that she could be the subject of a purely fictionalized Volume 3 of your novel, covering Hart’s later life. Did Nee-Nee actually exist and is there any historical evidence of her meeting with Hart?
LL: Nee-Nee, as a character, was fiction but from my research, I discovered that Prince Gong did offer to arrange a marriage for Hart with a young female member of his family — probably a teenager, and it made Hart nervous. Maybe he didn’t want to be that close to the ruling family of China. Who knows? I think that nervousness explains why he was in such a rush to get married after he lost Ayaou and took the children to Ireland where he left them with foster parents. Before Hart returned to China, he found a young Irish wife through an arranged and hasty marriage. I think he liked women young, and once they aged and lost that bloom of youth, Hart lost interest in them. In fact, after his Irish wife had three children, he convinced her to return to England where she lived most of her life on the estate near London that Hart bought through his agent in the UK. The one time she returned to China years later, he complained in his journal about the distractions she was causing him and hoped she’d leave soon, and she did.
Ayaou was barely an adolescent when Hart was in his early 20s, and his Irish bride was 18 when he was in his 30s. I have no idea who Prince Gong had in mind for Hart to marry, but it was someone from the royal Manchu family.
IC: There is a fair amount of frank and erotic (but not pornographic) sex in the novel. I guess all these details must have been fictionalized. Do you have any advice for budding novelists on what balance to strike between vividness and taste in sexual depictions? Sex, as is well known, is one of the most difficult things to pull off in writing.
LL: Yes, the sex in the novel was fictionalized. Hart didn’t go into that much detail in his journals, although it was obvious he was lonely and horny as most young men are. My advice for budding novelists is to write sex scenes they feel comfortable with. It has to come naturally. Don’t force it because you think it will sell books. As for me, I had fun writing sex scenes. I think sex is part of life, and if sex is part of the plot and linked to the theme of the story, why avoid it just because some prude might be offended and write a 1-star review? After all, according to the Harvard scholars, Hart’s relationship with Ayaou gave him his “fill of romance,” and I wanted to explore what that meant.
IC: The timeframe of your novel concentrates on the decade between Hart’s arrival in China in 1854 and Ayaou’s untimely death. During these years the Taiping Rebellion was raging (and finally defeated) and the Second Opium War launched and concluded (with the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860). What other possible novels do you suppose could be set in this rich and dramatic period? Any favorite books of yours from this time?
LL: I can only think of one book that comes to mind, and it isn’t a novel. It’s non-fiction since I read only non-fiction when I was researching Hart’s life. The book was called For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose. Fascinating book.
However, there are two novels I’m tempted to write, but they both take place before the 19th century. One would be about Matteo Ricci set in the 16th century, and the second would be about the only female emperor of China, Wu Zetian in the 7th century.
I have this suspicion that Ricci was a pedophile, and that would make an interesting and scandalous story, and from what I’ve read of Wu Zetian’s life, she had a healthy sexual appetite and kept her own male concubines around when she was the emperor. I read that when Ricci lived in the imperial court, he surrounded himself with young orphan boys — children. I don’t think Catholic Priests started to molest young children only in the 20th century. I think it’s been going on for millennia.
The Catholic Church wouldn’t approve of that story since there is a campaign to turn Ricci into a saint. The Church is already thinking of beatifying him, and I understand that usually comes first before the Church cooks up the miracle needed to turn someone into a saint.
IC: Specifically on the subject of historical fiction set in China, why do you think there appears to be such a large readership out there? Is the interest primarily in historical fiction (of any exotic or Asian country) or specifically in China?
LL: I think interest in China rises and falls depending on how much the U.S. media prints stories about China. After all, the United States has to justify spending its huge annual military budgets to make sure the weapons industry in the U.S. keeps making profits. The U.S. accounts for almost 40% of total military spending in the world. That can’t be sustained unless most of the citizens fear that there is a boogeyman out to get them, and the corporate media is making sure there will always be one or more. Right now, banging the media war drums to make China the bad guy has quieted down, because ISIS is the current big-bad-wolf that wants to eat America. Stirring up fear through the media is an industry, by itself, in the United States, and that fear leads to profits and wealth for the few who never have enough.
IC: You’ve published My Splendid Concubine independently. Was this the original intention or did you approach any literary agents or publishing houses with your manuscript?
LL: With My Splendid Concubine, I did find an agent who managed to gain the interest of an editor at Random House, who read the manuscript and then said no. I have been down this road before, and I’m not getting any younger. That’s why I went back and did another revision of the book adding more detail to the story and then decided to publish independently. I wanted readers to be the judge of my work instead of an agent or editor gatekeeper in the traditional publishing industry. And now, eight years after the 1st edition was published in late 2007, 81% of 274 Amazon reader reviews (on December 16, 2015) for the 3rd edition are positive. I think the reader’s voices are more powerful than an agent or editor.
IC: For an independently published novel that has thrived primarily through word of mouth (the gold standard of success) and sold thousands of copies, do you have any words of advice for authors who are considering publishing independently?
LL: My initial advice for indie authors is to stay away from publishers that charge a fee to publish their work. That can be expensive with no guarantee readers will buy, read or enjoy the story. Instead, indie authors should buy their own ISBNs through R. R. Bowker and then learn how to do all the work. If an author wants to subcontract work out for the cover, editing and formatting, there are plenty of sub-contractors and the fees are all over the place. In addition, there’s a lot of free advice on the Internet. I find a lot of it through Twitter.
But, before publishing that first book, start a blog and build a social media network online. If you don’t know how to blog, there’s plenty of free advice out there. For starters, check YouTube and watch a few how to videos. When you are ready, I suggest publishing through Amazon kdp for the e-book, Create Space or Lightning Source (LSI Ingram) for the paperback, and Draft2Digital or Smashwords also for the e-book for extended distribution beyond Amazon kdp. If an author does all the work, then the only additional cost will be the ISBN numbers. Amazon kdp, Create Space, Draft2Digital and Smashwords are all free. They earn their money from a portion of the sale of your work after it’s published.
IC: Finally, if you were a Western expat like Hart living in 19th-century China, would you have a concubine?
LL: Yes. In fact, if I had the money, I’d probably have several concubines, but like Hart, I’d have to deal with and overcome my Christian guilt for being a human male with a healthy libido.
Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Vet, was first introduced to Robert Hart’s journals and letters in 1999, and that led to a decade long journey of discovery. After several trips to China to learn more about Sir Robert Hart’s hidden love story, he returned to the United States and spent several years writing My Splendid Concubine. After serving in the Marines, Lofthouse went to college on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a BA in journalism. He then taught in the public schools for 30 years. He is the award winning author of three novels and one memoir, Crazy is Normal: A classroom exposé.
See also by Isham Cook:
Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China