Diaries

The diaries are a major part of the Sir Robert Hart collection at Queen’s. The diary set comprises 77 volumes from 1854 to 1908, beginning when Hart was nineteen years old and continuing until he was seventy-three. See (MS 15/1) handlist.

The Hart Diaries project at Queen’s is underway to transcribe all 77 volumes of the diary.

Currently volumes 1-8 (1854-66)1 and volume 31 (1885-87) are available online.

Hart made diary entries on a regular basis throughout the period, although he destroyed certain volumes and pages. Some entries were written a few days later and back-dated.

There are no journals for the years 1856-7 or 1859-62. It appears Hart destroyed his journals for those years.2 The period coincides largely with the dates of Hart’s relationship with a Chinese woman, Ayaou (1857-1863). Hart may also have wished to destroy any entries relating to his failed engagement to an English woman in 1856.3

Hart kept the diaries private during his lifetime, and tried to minimize their historical importance.4 He did not, however, either destroy them or order their posthumous destruction. He may have feared public opprobrium were he to destroy this unique record of his work in China, the existence of which was known to the British public. And he must also have been reluctant to consign to oblivion a work on which he had spent so many hours of his life.

Hart wrote above all for one reader: himself. The picture of Hart painted in the diary, as a man greedy for detail, prone to gossip, with limitless ambitions for China, an adroit political tactician, faithful to his wife but fond of female company – this does not tell us everything about the man he was, but it tells us a great deal about who he believed himself to be.


  1. Vols 1-8 have been previously transcribed and published: vols 1-4 as Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854-1863, ed. by Katherine F. Bruner, John K. Fairbank, and Richard J. Smith (London: Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1986); and vols 5-8 as Robert Hart and China’s Early Modernization: His Journals, 1863-1866, ed. by Richard J. Smith, John K. Fairbank, and Katherine F. Bruner (London: Distributed by the Harvard University Press, 1991).
  2. Edward LeFevour, ‘A Report on the Robert Hart Papers at Queen’s University, Belfast, N. I.’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 33.3 (1974), 437–39 <http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2052941>. See also Bruner, Fairbank and Smith, p. 154.
  3. Lan Li and Deirdre Wildy, ‘A New Discovery and Its Significance: The Statutory Declarations Made by Sir Robert Hart Concerning His Secret Domestic Life in 19th Century China’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 43 (2003), 63–87.
  4. See Henk Vynckier and Chihyun Chang, ‘The Life Writing of Hart, Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service’, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 14.5, article 10 (2013) <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2143\&context=clcweb> [accessed 25 July 2015]; see also Henk Vynckier and Chihyun Chang, ‘Imperium in Imperio: Robert Hart, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and Its (Self-)Representations’, Biography, 37.1 (2014), 69–92 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/bio.2014.0000>.

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