Backhouse completes two manuscripts and gives them to Dr Hoeppli, who is so horrified and fascinated in equal degree by their contents that he deposits copies in three major academic libraries around the world, with instructions that they are only to be opened and made available to the public after his death. Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, is the first volume, made public for the first time in 2011, in an exceptionally well produced edition by the Shanghai-based publishing house, Earnshaw Books.
Part 1: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Memory, fond memory, when all things fail we fly to thee…
So what is it about the book that so shocked and gripped Hoeppli? Backhouse had been in Beijing off and on since 1898, had been an eyewitness to the fall of the Qing and the early days of the Republic of China, had had dealings with the first post- Qing government, had managed to lie low during the uncertain warlord era, and was generally a fascinating Old China Hand. He was also a well- known author, and a linguistic genius, fluent in Mandarin, Mongolian, Manchu, Russian and Japanese, as well as the usual European languages, and of course Greek and Latin. His linguistic gifts had been made use of by just about all interested parties in the scramble for China. He was also an English Baronet, and openly gay. All these elements form the heady elixir of his text.
The China Memoirs consist of 19 chapters – their ordering is uncertain - covering a narrative arc that extends from 1899 to 1908, with flashbacks right back to the early part of Empress Dowager Cixi’s life, and a final chapter set in 1928. Backhouse details his experiences in the gay brothels and bathhouses of Beijing. He details his nuits d’amour and love affairs with actors and sing-song boys in graphic detail. He claims to have been the lover of several prominent Princes of the Manchu dynasty, to have enjoyed relations intime with many of the eunuchs of the court, including the chief eunuch Li Lien Ying. Most controversially, however, he claims to have been the secret lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi –despite his homosexuality and her advanced age- and gives an intimate portrait of the Old Buddha, as she was called, and her circle, with detailed descriptions of orgies in the Forbidden Palace. We learn for example, that Cixi was endowed with an abnormally large clitoris, which she liked to stimulate by placing in Sir Edmund’s anal crease, simulating penetration. Perhaps too much information. But Backhouse holds nothing back.
The prose is a repository of languages, an artifice of code-switching between English, French, Chinese, including ideograms and Wade Giles Romanization, Latin, Greek, some Italian, some German, some Russian; embedded within it are quotations from Horace, Virgil, Lucretius, Confucius, Mencius, Chuangtzu, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Book of Changes, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Buddhist sutras, and references to classical and modern European and Chinese history. Sometimes these references are highlighted in the text with quotations, sometimes they form part of the very fabric of the syntax, in the use of collocations or phrases borrowed from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Tagore, for example. Backhouse’s language is a treasure house of learning and culture that embraces Eastern and Western civilizations, and moves effortlessly between them. It is also unabashedly erotic and transgressive. Here is a ‘menu’ of services available at the gay brothel ‘The Hall of Chaste Joys’:
Then Mr Tsai explained to me the tariff: simple or unipartite copulation with the pathic costs Taels 30; reciprocal copulation costs Taels 45; P’in Hsiao 品簫(flute savouring, an allusion to the shape of a Chinese flute which resembles the male organ) or fellatio is Taels 10 extra if limited to the pathic; Taels 15 if practiced by the latter on the client; irrumatio or ciotio per buccam is Taels 30 inclusive of Feuilles de Rose, or what we call “Cinnamon Leaves”, Kuei Yeh 桂葉 if applied by the client to the pathic’s anal, pubic, and perineal region but if the client requires this labial business on his verge, posterior etcetera, he must disburse Taels 45…
This is not just a case of an English text embroidered with a few French and Chinese words. At a rough estimate, foreign languages make up between a quarter and a third of the entire text, with Chinese taking up around half of that, with the rest distributed among French and Latin, and a sprinkling of German, Russian, Greek etc. Even the work’s title is bilingual. But don’t worry, everything is footnoted and translated: the editing is impeccable.
Backhouse’s earlier book China under the Empress Dowager covers much of the same period as that covered by the China Memoirs. The earlier book gives a more acceptable version of events, a more conventional, historically oriented version of the life and death of Cixi; while Backhouse’s memoir gives a more private and intimate – in a literal sense- of the same person and events. Taken together, the two books add up to an amazing record of an amazing era: a double vision, one public, one private.
We can see how this works by looking at one chapter in detail. In The Mantle of Cagliostro, Backhouse accompanies Cixi and the two eunuchs Li Lien Ying, and Tsui Te Lung to a fortune teller, where Cixi is given glimpses of the future in a crystal ball. But first, she is given 12 scenes of the past, as the seer says, in order to establish the veracity of his predictions. If his visions of the past are accurate, then his auguries of the future can also be taken as true.
Each scene reveals some key incident in the Empress’s biography, and at the same time stands as a symbol of the divergence of vision between the two texts. Space precludes us from comparing in detail all the scenes offered by the seer with the same incidents described in China Under the Empress Dowager, but comparison of a small selection will suffice to show what I mean.
Three Visions in a Crystal Ball
· The fourth vision seen in the crystal ball describes the death of Cixi’s son, the Tongzhi Emperor, who was held to have died of smallpox in China Under the Empress Dowager, but is revealed in The China Memoirs, to have died of syphilis.
· In the fifth scene, the death of the Tongzhi Emperor’s widow is described. Here, it is revealed that she had been murdered on Cixi’s orders, and the foetus of the late Emperor’s child untimely ripped from her womb. China Under the Empress Dowager, however, reports her death as a suicide, although that text does note that court and city were awash with rumours that Cixi had had her poisoned.
· In the eighth scene, Cixi sees the death of her Co-Regnant, the Eastern Empress Dowager, and confesses that she herself had poisoned her with arsenic to avenge the murder of her favourite. In China Under the Empress Dowager, the death of the Eastern Empress Dowager is attributed to a sudden and mysterious illness only, and there is no suggestion of foul play.
Most controversially, however, is the description in chapter 17 of The China Memoirs of the deaths of the Guanxu Emperor, and of Old Buddha herself, who had both died within one day of each other. Backhouse writes here that he had heard the real story of their deaths from Chief Eunuch Li, who claimed to have been present. According to Li and Backhouse, the Emperor had been strangled to death on the orders of Cixi herself, and then Cixi had been shot point blank with a pistol by Yuan Shih Kai the next day in the throne room. The official version given out at the time – and the version given in China Under the Empress Dowager - was that both had died peacefully in their beds (both at 3.00 in the afternoon) surrounded by family members and retainers.
What all these scenes from The China Memoirs have in common, and what differentiates them from the earlier China Under the Empress Dowager, is the presence of the lurid, the fantastical, the horrible, the bizarre, the salacious, the outrageous. They also incorporate elements that might have originated in local gossip. Naturally, after these incidents, Beijing was alive with rumour, scandal and hearsay, most of which would have been unknown to the foreign community, but which someone like Backhouse, with his knowledge of Chinese and his intimate relations with the locals, would have heard.
Backhouse and the truth
Before the scenes with the crystal ball, Backhouse gives a preamble in which the theme of truth is highlighted. What I am about to describe may seem incredible, he begins, then refers to Confucius, Saint (‘doubting’) Thomas, difficulty of belief in the doctrine of the Resurrection, and the god of death Yen Wang. He refers to his own impeccable bona fides, and the presence of the two eunuchs as witnesses to confirm his version of the events, and ends thus: I know that my record is true.
While ostensibly, this preamble refers to the specific context, to the possibility that the seer was fraudulent, and that the visions in the crystal ball merely the result of tricks with smoke and mirrors, it can also more generally refer to the status of truth within the whole text.
In 1976 Hugh Trevor-Roper, aka Lord Dacre, published his fascinating account of Backhouse’s life, The Hermit of Peking: The Hidden life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, exposing him as one of the most accomplished con men and hoaxsters of the early 20th century. Among Sir Edmund’s many cons, two concern us here, the case of the diary of Ching Shan, on which his book with Bland was heavily based, and his presentation to the Bodleian Library in Oxford of a trove of Chinese documents and books.
Con 1: The Diary of Ching Shan
One of the great selling points of China Under the Empress Dowager was the inclusion of a large section of a diary of an official in the Forbidden Palace, Ching Shan, which Backhouse claimed to have found in the house where he was staying, and which he translated for the book. Rumours about the doubtful authenticity of the diary had been started soon after the book’s publication by G. E. Morrison, the Times correspondent in Peking (who knew absolutely no Chinese, and was dependent on Backhouse for information he then passed off as his own scoops). Backhouse rigorously denied that he had forged the document, but Morrison’s insinuations stuck, damaging Backhouse’s reputation among the foreign community in Beijing. Although the diary, long the subject of controversy, has now been conclusively revealed as a forgery, historians are still in disagreement about whether Backhouse forged it himself or not; and if he didn’t, the question remains whether he knew it was a forgery at the time he used it for his collaboration with Bland.
Con 2: The Bodleian Bequests
In 1913 twenty nine crates of manuscripts and books arrived at the Bodleian Library, a generous donation of material, which, Backhouse claimed, came from the Palace Library in Beijing. In the turmoil after the collapse of the Qing the year previous to the donation, the Chinese were selling off their treasures, and Backhouse – and others- had no compunction about buying them up and moving them abroad to safety. Although the provenance of the material was vague, its quality was not. Contemporary sinologists were overawed by the condition and rarity of the documents, and the Chinese collection of the Bodleian Library was now declared the best collection in Europe. In 1914 another cache of priceless documents arrived from China, and in 1918 another, followed in 19919 by yet another. However, now Backhouse was receiving payment for his ‘bequests’ and was offering ever more tempting goodies for ever higher prices. To cut a long and complex story short, questions about the provenance of the library began to be raised, and an enquiry into the authenticity of the documents was set up, the result of which was that the same experts who had enthused over the quality of the bequest now declared that the later purchases were forgeries. Backhouse insisted on their authenticity; and scholars today are still undecided on the question of whether the forgeries were by Backhouse or someone else, and if the latter, did Backhouse know they were forgeries at the time he sold them to the University.
Three things are important in these two cons. First, if Backhouse himself forged them, it proved that he was a literary genius in Chinese. The quality of the calligraphy and the contents of the documents were regarded as examples of the highest literary art by the experts of the day, and even now their status is uncertain but their quality – as real documents or later forgeries- is not. Second, long before the time of writing The China Memoirs Backhouse’s reputation had been irredeemably tarnished by both controversies, and since the end of WWI he had been rejected by the foreign community in Beijing as a prankster, a madman and a mischief maker. Third, is the problematic nature of the truth both as it regards events and texts.
These controversies are reflected in the text of The China Memoires by an insistence on the truth of the revelations contained in it. In the author’s Forward to the Reader, Backhouse writes: I… hereby positively affirm on my honour and on that of my respectable family…. That the studies which I have endeavoured to write for Dr Hoeppli contain nothing but the truth, the whole truth and the absolute truth. He refers directly to the Ching Shan diary episode, and emphasizes repeatedly Ching Shan’s artless but truthful narration. He refers constantly to his credentials, his bona fides as he calls them, and to his relationship with the great and mighty, Lord Grey in particular, citing a letter he claims to have received from the peer testating to its recipient’s learning and honesty, the original of which letter is now lost, but a copy of which is helpfully included by Backhouse in his text. He also takes the opportunity to castigate his enemies, especially Morrison. He is careful, whenever he presents some particularly salacious or outrageous piece of information, to present its provenance, although, characteristically, as Trevor-Roper pointed out, the provenance he refers to is usually in the form of documents which have now been lost, or to witnesses who have long since died. (The loss of his library forms a consistent minor chord in the text.)
Trevor-Roper’s considered opinion, delivered after due textual analysis of the manuscripts, was that the details they contained, of Backhouse’s relationship with Cixi and of the revelations contained for example, in the Cagliostro chapter, and the chapter on the deaths of the Emperor and Empress Dowager were not true. He wrote: I was able to satisfy myself that the memoires were not merely erroneous here and there, not merely coloured by imagination in detail but pure fantasy throughout – and yet fantasy which was spun with extraordinary ingenuity around and between true facts accurately remembered or cunningly bent to sustain it. (296) He concluded that The China Memoires was the last explosion of a repressed and distorted sexuality.
In order to further understand the complex nature of the truth of Backhouse’s text, it is necessary to turn to the only full-length biography of Backhouse that has so far appeared, and I offer now a review within a review of this work.
“Hermit of Beijing: the hidden life of Sir Edmund Backhouse” by Hugh Trevor-Roper
At first glance, Trevor-Roper appears to be right. After all, he is Lord Dacre, and Sir Edmund’s text is simply too fantastical to be regarded as literal historical truth. But in his excellent introduction to the text, Derek Sandhaus gives an important and much needed corrective to Trevor-Roper’s assessment of Backhouse’s life and work. Sandhaus points out the connections between The China Memoirs and the lively gay scene in turn of the century Beijing, emphasizing the accurate, realistic aspects of Sir Edmund’s descriptions. He emphasizes the way that The China Memoirs situates itself in Chinese literary genres of gay life and love, of which there is a rich tradition, both classical and contemporary with Backhouse. And he dwells on Backhouse’s early association with Oscar Wilde and the circle of Decadents at Oxford, and his reaction to Wilde’s fall from grace. He argues most plausibly that it was the shock of this scandal- Backhouse was directly involved in raising money for Wilde’s defence - that motivated Backhouse’s self-imposed exile from British life – as it did many other gay men of the time- and his subsequent wariness of the British.
Sandhaus is right to point out that whatever Backhouse was, he was certainly not a ‘repressed’ homosexual; a better description might indeed be a ‘rampant’ homosexual. The China Memoirs flaunts its author’s sexuality –indeed it rubs the reader’s face in it. Likewise, Backhouse in his life made no secret of his proclivities, finding Beijing’s gay scene highly liberating, and it was this openness, this refusal to live by European, or most especially Anglo-Saxon hypocritical sexual mores, that scandalized the foreign community in Beijing, and led to Backhouse’s rejection by this community, along with the scandals of the fraudulent diary and Oxford bequests.
Why does Trevor-Roper call Backhouse a repressed homosexual? He does so because in his mind and language, the adjective ‘repressed’ always goes with the noun ‘homosexual’. Trevor-Roper belongs to that class of person who thinks that homosexuals are abnormal, that homosexuals are always repressed by their very nature, but good people, nonetheless. Trevor-Roper’s judgment is motived by unstated prejudices, both sexual and class. Trevor-Roper’s brother was openly gay, and one of the chief witnesses in the enquiry that lead to the Wolfenden Report, which argued for and eventually achieved the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1957. It’s safe to assume, surely, that the involvement of Patrick Trevor-Roper in the enquiry placed unwelcome scrutiny on the whole family. Trevor-Roper was a relentless and unscrupulous social climber, and although he was given a peerage three years after his book on Backhouse appeared, his peerage was for life only, while Sir Edmund’s was hereditary. Someone of Trevor-Roper’s stolid middle class arriviste background would find it hard to resist the temptation to disapprove of the aristocratic insouciance with which Backhouse swindled and forged his way through the antebellum world.
Another gulf fixed between biographer and subject is the misunderstanding between the long-term expat, and the stay-at-home, in which both sides regard the other as losers in the business of life: the expat regards the stay-at-home as provincial and parochial, lacking in breadth of experience, while the stay-at-home regards the expat as someone rather beyond the pale, corrupted by foreignness, a betrayer of the values of home, someone, perhaps, who can’t ‘make it’ at home. For the long-term expat, of course, the concepts of ‘making it’ and ‘home’ have completely other meanings.
Trevor-Roper calls Backhouse a ‘hermit’, and his life ‘hidden’. To be sure, the historian is referring to Backhouse’s hoaxes and cons, but what of them? Are they really so reprehensible? No one died or was injured as a result of them, and all they did was to leave some rather pompous businessmen, academics and other self-appointed guardians of propriety with egg all over their faces. So a hermit in what sense, then, and hidden from whom? Only in the sense that Backhouse did not associate with foreigners, and there is no record of what he was up to for most of the years in Beijing. He lived there off and on for nigh on 45 years. What did he get up to? There is no reason to assume that he did not have a full social life, like any other person, and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances - among the Chinese, who of course were invisible to the foreigners. In fact, Backhouse tells us about these friends: My friends not infrequently ask me why I am nervous during electric storms… DM9
Photographs of Backhouse in his old age show a dignified old man in Chinese garb. Underneath all the Sage-like hair is the rosy healthy face of a kind old uncle, apple cheeked, dimpled and with smile creases around the eyes and a friendly, somewhat vaguely mischievous glint therein. It is not the wild, ascetic, lunatic face of an eremite crazed by solitude that Trevor-Roper’s portrait conjures up. Trevor-Roper’s characterization of Backhouse as roguish, sly, in love with money, not to be trusted, up-to-his-old-tricks-again is couched in exactly the kind of language that British commentators had used to describe the Chinese right back from the start of their dealings with them. In artifice, falsehood and an attachment to all kinds of lucre, many of the Chinese are difficult to be paralleled by any other people… wrote George Anson, captain of the 60 gun man-o’-war HMS Centurion, who arrived in China in 1743. This description could well summarise Trevor-Roper’s portrait of Backhouse.
Calling Backhouse a hermit is rather like the modern parallel of the press accusing Pynchon of being a recluse, and Pynchon retorting he’s not a recluse, just that he doesn’t want to talk to the media, who thereupon call him a recluse…
Also, Sir Edmund’s linguistic gifts and culture vastly outweighed Trevor-Roper’s own. Backhouse wrote this work sitting in a hospitable bed, remember, with no access to reference works or a library, quoting copiously in about 9 different languages including Chinese characters- from memory. Trevor-Roper writes with disapproval of the ‘ideograms’ Sir Edmund had so liberally sprinkled through his work. For Trevor-Roper, these characters have no purpose, they are merely an inconvenience, an added printing expense; he is blind to the layers of meaning and flavour they give the text, uninterested even, as to what they might represent. Trevor-Roper never even went to China to research his biography (admittedly difficult in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, but not impossible), and his acknowledgements page -incredibly for a book about someone who spent their whole adult life in China -includes not a single Chinese name (although an improbably named Laetitia, Lady Lucas Tooth, is thanked) and showed in his book no understanding of Chinese culture or the aspects of it that might have attracted Backhouse, an astonishing omission, given the fact that Backhouse devoted his life to China and her culture.
Everywhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography, then, this disapproval and incomprehension of his subject and his subject’s work and milieu comes through. Most damagingly, however, is the historian’s incompetence as a literary critic, and it is to this which we now turn.
Link to part 2
Link to part 2