Backhouse was born into a Quaker family in Darlington; his relatives included many churchmen and scholars. His youngest brother was Sir Roger Backhouse, who was First Sea Lord from 1938-39. He attended Winchester College and Merton College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1894, and although he returned to the university in 1895, he never completed his degree, instead fleeing the country due to the massive debts he had accumulated.
In 1899 he arrived in Peking where he soon began collaborating with the influential Times correspondent Dr. George Ernest Morrison, aiding him with translation work. At this time he had already learned several languages, including Russian, Japanese and Chinese. In 1918 he inherited the family baronetcy from his father, Sir Jonathan Backhouse, 1st Baronet. He spent most of the rest of his life in Peking, in the employment of various companies and individuals, who made use of his language skills and alleged connections to the Chinese imperial court for the negotiation of business deals. None of these deals was ever successful.
In 1910 he published a history, China Under the Empress Dowager and in 1914, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking, both with British journalist J.O.P. Bland. With these books he established his reputation as an oriental scholar. In 1913 Backhouse began to donate a great many Chinese manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, hoping to receive a professorship in return. This endeavour was ultimately unsuccessful. He delivered a total of eight tons of manuscripts to the Bodleian between 1913 and 1923. The provenance of several of the manuscripts was later cast into serious doubt. Nevertheless, he donated over 17,000 items, some of which "were a real treasure", including half a dozen volumes of the rare Yongle Encyclopedia of the early 1400s.
He also worked as a secret agent for the British legation during the First World War, managing an arms deal between Chinese sources and the UK. In 1916 he presented himself as a representative of the Imperial Court and negotiated two fraudulent deals with the American Bank Note Company and John Brown & Company, a British shipbuilder. Neither company received any confirmation from the court. When they tried to contact Backhouse, he had left the country. After he returned to Peking in 1922 he refused to speak about the deals.
Backhouse's life was led in alternate periods of total reclusion and alienation from his Western origins, and work for Western companies and governments. In 1939, the Austrian Embassy offered him refuge, and he made the acquaintance of the Swiss consul, Dr Richard Hoeppli, whom he impressed with tales of his sexual adventures and homosexual life in old Beijing. Hoeppli persuaded him to write his memoirs, which were consulted by Trevor-Roper, but not published until 2011 by Earnshaw Books.
Backhouse died in Beijing in 1944, unmarried, and was succeeded in the Baronetcy by his nephew John Edmund Backhouse, son of Roger Backhouse.
There are two major accusations. The first is that much of Backhouse's China Under the Empress Dowager was based on a supposed diary of the high court official Ching Shan (Pinyin: Jing Shan) which he claimed to have found in the house of its recently deceased author when he occupied it after the Boxer Uprising of 1900. The diary was contested by scholars, notably Morrison, but defended by J. L. Duyvendak in 1924. Duyvendak studied the matter further and changed his mind in 1940. In 1991, Lo Hui-min published a definitive proof of its fraudulence.
Second, in 1973 the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper received a manuscript of Backhouse's memoirs, in which he boasted of having had affairs with prominent people, including Lord Rosebery, Paul Verlaine, an Ottoman princess, Oscar Wilde, and especially the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. Backhouse also had claimed to have visited Leo Tolstoy and acted opposite Sarah Bernhardt. Trevor-Roper described the diary as "pornographic," considered its claims, and eventually declared its contents to be figments of Backhouse's fertile imagination. Robert Bickers, in the Dictionary of National Biography, calls Backhouse a "fraudster," and declares that he "may indeed in his memoirs have been the chronicler of, for example, male brothel life in late-imperial Peking, and there may be many small truths in those manuscripts that fill out the picture of his life, but we know now that not a word he ever said or wrote can be trusted." Derek Sandhaus, however, notes that Trevor-Roper did not consult specialists in Chinese affairs, and seems to have read only enough of the text to have been disgusted by its homosexuality. While conceding that Backhouse fabricated or imagined many of these assignations, Sandhaus finds that others are plausible or independently confirmed and he reasons that Backhouse spoke Chinese, Manchu, and Mongolian, the languages of the imperial household, and his account of the atmosphere and customs of the Empress Dowager's court may be more reliable than Trevor Roper allowed.
Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse by Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Earnshaw Books (April 1, 2011)
Amazon: Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
In 1898 a young Englishman walked into a homosexual brothel in Peking and began a journey that he claims took him all the way to the bedchamber of imperial China’s last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Tz’u Hsi. Published now for the first time, the controversial memoirs of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse provide a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China’s imperial palace, with its rampant corruption, grand conspiracies, and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1976 bestseller Hermit of Peking, which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before Backhouse’s death in 1943, lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than “a pornographic novelette.” But Décadence Mandchoue is much more than that. Alternately shocking and lyrical, it is the masterwork of a linguistic genius—a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse’s chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians’ understanding of the era and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.
China Under the Empress Dowager by J. O. P. Bland & Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Paperback: 552 pages
Publisher: China Economic Review Publishing Ltd (March 1, 2010)
Amazon: China Under the Empress Dowager
One of the most popular and controversial Chinese history books ever written, China under the Empress Dowager is also one of the best. Authors Bland and Backhouse take you inside the Forbidden City during the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi (1861-1908), a world of power-thirsty eunuchs, concubines and Mandarins, intrigue, bitter antagonism and ruthless reprisals. The book was unique for its time in its reliance on Chinese source materials, some of which may have been fabricated. As entertaining as it is enlightening, the book that presaged the fall of the Qing dynasty is as readable today as it ever was.
More LGBT History at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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