The reason my mother would have burned “My Splendid Concubine” was because she grew up in a country with the soul of a church. After my mother died, I found a video collection of the Bible, an audio version and about thirty different published versions.
I didn’t know then that there was that many ways to speak for one God.
After my father died, mother spent her last decade to the age of eighty-nine studying the Bible several hours a day. This was her attempt to discover the answer to salvation that haunted her most of her life.
My mother loved to read other books too, as did my father, who was not a religious person. However, if my mother ran into a vivid sex scene in a novel, she threw the book in the fireplace.
Since I was born and raised a Catholic and when I was twelve my mother switched to the Jehovah Witnesses, I know why she would have burned my book.
To Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses, and most devout Christians of all sects, lust is a mortal sin.
In fact, Catholic Questions in a Secular World says, “The seven deadly sins are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth and lust.… Lust is the self-indulgent desire for gratification … without the sanctifying graces of marriage.”
When I was single in my thirties, I had a lusty relationship with a lawyer, who ended the relationship due to Christian guilt. She wasn’t a Catholic but she attended two different Christian churches on Sundays, and she made it clear that it was the guilt that drove her to stop seeing me.
My Splendid Concubine is historical fiction about a real man that went to China in 1854, bought a concubine and stayed until 1908 to become the most powerful Westerner in China’s history and the only foreigner trusted by the Emperor.
My reason for writing this series of posts was to show how cultural differences bring about biased opinions due to religious, spiritual and/or cultural beliefs.
Books have been written on the subject of sex in America that explains why my mother would have burned My Splendid Concubine.
America’s War on Sex: The Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty by Marty Klein, Ph D. is one example, which “Spotlights the political, legal and civic battles raging in this country against what is arguably our most private and pluralistic right – sexual freedom.”
And in Cultural Differences Defined by Written Language, I attempted to explain why cultures around the globe are not all the same as I did when I wrote of The Collective Culture versus Individualism.
An anonymous reviewer known as “colorado outback” posted a one-star review on Amazon of My Splendid Concubine, “You should Not Buy This Book – Seriously, just Soft Porn.” My mother would have agreed with “colorado outback”, because she was influenced by her religion.
Outback said: “this seemed more like the sexual fantasy of the author and NOT the historical novel it is purported to be.”
However, “outback” was wrong. The idea to write My Splendid Concubine didn’t originate from a sexual fantasy or wet dream, as I’ll explain.
Since writing My Splendid Concubine was not motivated by sexual fantasies, I responded to “outback’s” biased opinion, and he counterattacked saying my book does not “come up to par with Anchee Min, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Charles Dickens, Amy Tan, Pearl S. Buck, James Michener, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Tom Robbins and so on….”
I’d have to agree. I’ve never thought that I was equal or better than these authors.
Outback claimed to have read all of the books by the above authors and thousands more yet he only had two, one-star reviews posted on Amazon (at the time I wrote this post).
Where are all those five-star reviews extolling the virtues of the work he admires?
Outback has a right to “his or her” opinion, but I don’t have to agree or stay silent as he indicated when “outback” wrote, “P.S. You may want to grow a thicker skin.” In fact, there are other opinions of My Splendid Concubine that don’t agree with “colorado outback” that demonstrate a better understanding of why I wrote the novel.
Since “colorado outback” may argue (if he, she or it ever reads this) I quoted a friend’s biased review to defend my “thin skin”, I will use a review from a non-biased source — the Midwest Book Review, which has posted almost 60,000 reviews on Amazon and compiled about 200,000 helpful votes compared to “outback’s” two reviews with two helpful votes.
The Midwest Book Review has a policy that if a reviewer doesn’t like a book, they stop reading and find a book to enjoy. Good thing “colorado outback” doesn’t write reviews for Midwest.
The Midwest Book Reviewer wrote of My Splendid Concubine, “Love for ones wives’ sister is typically forbidden by most western religions, but the most successful westerner in Chinese history is faced with this conflict.
“‘My Splendid Concubine’ is the tale of Robert Hart who deals with his lust the Chinese way, which conflicts with his upbringing.
Midwest says: “The Taiping Rebellion doesn’t help matters, him making enemies of established and skilled mercenaries in the process of protecting his interest and the women he loves. ‘My Splendid Concubine’ is packed cover to cover with intriguing characters and plot, a must read for historical fiction fans and a fine addition to any collection on the genre.”
After first reading The Midwest Book Review for My Splendid Concubine, I thought, “Maybe I can write, but what happens if this is the only person that enjoys the book?”
Then a reviewer from the Historical Novels Review Online, wrote, “Some readers may be uncomfortable with the frank sexuality of the novel, as well as Hart’s simultaneous romantic relationship with both Ayaou and Shao-Mei, but those who are interested in unconventional romances with an out-of-the-ordinary setting will find plenty to enjoy.”
If I didn’t write such a lusty novel from personal sexual fantasies as “outback” claims, why did I write it?
The answer is simple.
I wanted to show the clash between different cultures and Sterling Seagrave showed me the way when he wrote in Dragon Lady: “To take the pain out of learning, his Chinese tutor suggested that (Robert) Hart might buy a concubine and study the local dialect with her.
“Hart wrote in his journal, ‘Here is a great temptation. Now, some of the China women are very good looking: You can make one your absolute possession for from 50 to 100 dollars and support her at a cost of 2 or 3 dollars per month. … Shall I hold out or shall I give way?’”
Seagrave writes in the next paragraph, “By early May he (Robert Hart) had a sleep-in dictionary, his concubine, Ayaou. He had just turned twenty; Ayaou was barely past puberty.”
Then the editors of Entering China’s Service – Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854-1863, wrote on page 8, “But anyone who reads the journals through knows that his mental struggles about women were not soon or lightly won; whether the relapse was to daydreams or to a Chinese mistress, it caused him ambivalence and anguish.”
China has had a concubine culture for thousands of years and that culture, although changed in form, is still active today, which I wrote of in Concubines Return to China Riding Capitalism’s Wave of Wealth.
In China, the concubine is a trophy showing a man’s success, and no major religion on earth has had a lasting impact on the Chinese culture in more than a thousand years.
In fact, the concept that lust is a mortal sin doesn’t exist in China unless a Chinese adopts Christianity as their religion.
That does not mean China is without morals but the moral codes of China exist without the sin of mortal lust as Catholics and many devout Christians believe. In fact, I’ve known mainland Chinese that are extremely moral and would put most Puritans to shame.
The idea to focus on Robert Hart’s struggles with his Victorian, Christian morals while living in 19th century China’s concubine culture sprouted when I first read his journals and letters published by Harvard University Press.
In fact, in 19th century China, the more power and wealth a man had, the more women he owned.
Another influence was the movie directed by Zhang Yimou in 1991, Raise the Red Lantern, which “focuses on the ever-shifting balance of power between the various concubines while the husband ignores much of what is going on — taking his pleasures when he feels like it.”
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.
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