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Robert Hart and Sino-Foreign Networks in Late Qing China

PhD project title

Robert Hart and Sino-Foreign Networks in Late Qing China

Outline description, including interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimensions (300 words max)

This PhD project offers an opportunity to explore the networks of power linking China and the West in the nineteenth century. The ‘Irish mandarin’ Sir Robert Hart  (1835-1911) exerted such wide influence that he has even been described as ‘one third of the trinity in power’ in the last years of imperial China. Hart’s occupied ‘a nodal point in a network of transnational elites’, and his importance arose as much from his social networks as from his formal responsibilities as Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs .

Despite the importance of Hart’s social networks to the history of China’s relations with the West, they have never been specifically studied. Foreign influence in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China has been broadly characterised as ‘semi-colonial’ or as ‘informal empire’, but a more detailed understanding requires scholars to identify the ways in which foreign powers established themselves in China and to explore the connections linking them, and their connections to the Chinese state and society. Analysis of the Sino-foreign connections mediated by Hart, perhaps the most influential foreigner in late Qing China, should help us to understand better how foreign influence and coercion were exercised as well as the patterns of Chinese resistance.

This interdisciplinary project will utilise path-breaking approaches, including network analysis, to analyse Hart’s international social networks. The use of systematic methodologies for longitudinal analysis of social networks methods in historiography is in its infancy (e.g. Journal of Historical Network Research, est. 2017), and therefore potentially groundbreaking. The principal sources for this PhD will be drawn from the Hart Collection at Queen’s which contains Hart’s seventy-seven volumes of diaries, alongside letters and ephemera.


Key words/descriptors




Digital humanities, Qing China, social networks, China Maritime Customs, Robert Hart, digital history


Fit to CITI-GENS theme(s)


  • Information Technology,
  • Advanced Manufacturing,
  • Life Sciences
  • Creative Industries.

Digital humanities, including big data and quantitative analysis, offer the potential to transform the writing of history, but  few historical researchers possess the breadth of expertise to employ these new methods. This PhD project will support the researcher to develop path-breaking interdisciplinary skills. The researcher will use these methodological approaches to generate new insights into the complex history of the relationship between China and the West, cutting across simplistic perceptions of Sino-Western relations.

The researcher will work alongside other linked digital history projects arising from the Hart Collection at Queen’s to develop innovative digital approaches to the past, and will be a member of the Centre for Public History at Queen’s. The project connects to the Belfast Region City Deal emphasis on digital innovation and creative industries.


Supervisor Information



First Supervisor:            Emma Reisz                                                                   School: History, HAPP

Second Supervisor:       Helen McAneney                                                         School: Centre for Public Health

Third Supervisor:           Aglaia De Angeli                                                           School: History, HAPP


Name of non-HEI partner(s)

Partner: China Customs Museum (Beijing)

Placement supervisor: Dr Haiyong Li

Contribution of non-HEI partner(s) to the project:



China Customs Museum will:

  • provide supervision, mentoring, and training in transferable skills;
  • offer the researcher the possibility to develop collaborations with the non-academic sector by hosting them for a determined period during the project;
  • offer the researcher the possibility to benefit from research with the Museum collection.

 Profile of the non-HEI partner and the nature of the relationship.    



Partner: China Customs Museum (Beijing)

Placement Supervisor: Dr Haiyong Li

The researcher will spend 3-6 months at the China Customs Museum, researching Sino-Western networks and learning how to communicate historical research findings to broad audiences.

The China Customs Museum is a national museum under the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC). It is responsible for collecting and protecting customs artefacts, showcasing customs culture, conducting research on customs history, and promoting customs professional education. The China Customs Museum has more than 29,000 objects, ranging from the Warring States period (475-221BC) to contemporary China. The museum’s diverse, high-quality exhibits not only witness the long history of China Customs, but also serve as a window through which the visitor can get a glimpse of the evolution of China as well as the heritage of today’s customs officers—the doorkeepers of China.

The China Customs Museum has an MoU agreement with Queen’s University Belfast, and a track record of research and impact collaboration with Queen’s. China Customs Museum has a busy research and publications programme, and is well placed to support researchers and to develop their skills in public history.

The Museum will help the project researcher to develop their skills in engaging broad audiences, particularly in connection with Chinese history, trade history and the history of Sino-British relations.

Subject area