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The Infamous Sir Edmund Backhouse

He was a writer, a professor, a spy, a historian, and he quite possibly bedded an empress


The Infamous Sir Edmund Backhouse

He was a writer, a professor, a spy, a historian, and he quite possibly bedded an empress


If Sir Edmund Backhouse were in Beijing today, he’d be in real trouble. The bad behavior of a few expatriates and tourists and subsequent 100-day crackdown on “illegal” foreigners has created a tense environment, but the activities documented so far pale in comparison to what Backhouse claims to have got up to after coming to China in 1898, according to his posthumously published “Décadence Mandchoue,” edited by Derek Sandhaus.

Backhouse came to Beijing in 1898, having failed to complete his undergraduate degree at Oxford University. There, his professional life was rather colorful, ranging from working as an interpreter for The Times newspaper in London, to becoming an informant for the British government, to becoming a professor of law and literature, writes Sandhaus.

Obviously unsatisfied with the myriad careers he had already held down, Backhouse went on to publish two major academic works: “China Under the Empress Dowager” and “Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking.” Both texts would vastly shape Western perceptions of China for generations to come.

But Backhouse was not to be remembered for his academic contributions. Today, his name is associated with smut and deception.

In the final year of his life, Backhouse authored two outrageously sexual memoirs: “The Dead Past” (his life in England) and “Décadence Mandchoue” (his life in China), wherein he essentially sexed his way through all the notable figures of his time, including the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后).

The manuscripts of the books went unpublished in Backhouse’s lifetime, but after his death, they ended up in the hands of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a British historian. He used them to write a biography of Backhouse, which came to be entitled “The Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse.” Renowned for his sharp wit and scathing satire, Roper’s biography cast Backhouse in a whole new light.

The “Hermit of Peking” revealed Backhouse as a fraud: his landmark work, “China under the Empress Dowager,” was a lie.

And the deception went even further. Roper discovered that Backhouse was a con artist. He had invented connections to important Chinese dignitaries, had arranged the sale of non-existent imperial jewelry and had even conned the Chinese Navy into signing contracts for the creation of several warships – none of which ever appeared.

Roper concludes that, so delusional was Backhouse, he would have been unable to differentiate between fact and fiction, and as such, his works and contributions should be considered unreliable at best and outright frauds at worst.

And thus has history remembered Backhouse, until Sandhaus’ “Décadence Mandchoue.”

In his introduction to the 2011 publication of “Décadence Mandchoue,” Sandhaus criticizes several of Roper’s arguments, such as his accusation that Backhouse was a repressed homosexual. As Sandhaus shows, Backhouse couldn’t have been less repressed. At Oxford, his friends were all openly homosexual writers and poets. He was even closely involved with Oscar Wilde, and would later raise funds for his legal defense.

And that wasn’t the only detail Roper got wrong, according to Sandhaus, calling into question Roper’s condemnation of Backhouse’s moral integrity. He writes of how Backhouse worked with a group of Manchus to rescue huge quantities of historical artifacts from the Summer Palace, before they were looted by foreign forces sent to quell the Boxer Rebellion. He was apprehended at the scene by Russian troops and arrested, but still managed to ensure that the artifacts were returned to the Forbidden City.

And is it possible that he really did sleep with the Dowager Empress? Perhaps, says Sandhaus. Part of her recompense for her involvement with the Boxer Rebellion (义和团运动) was to become more actively involved in the foreign community, and at a number of the meetings where she was in attendance, Backhouse acted as interpreter. The empress is rumored to have had a taste for foreign men, reportedly taking French and German lovers. Backhouse might have been gay, but as Sandhaus points out, but one doesn’t refuse the advances of an empress.

Empress Cíxǐ Tàihòu

Sandhaus argues that, though Backhouse’s academic works lack historical value, the man himself is still worth remembering. Studying “Décadence Mandchoue,” he says, surely provides a fascinating insight into early 20th Century Beijing – and while some elements might be fictionalized, they are not necessarily outright lies.

With “Décadence Mandchoue” now available for all to read, it would seem that the time is ripe for us to trust Sandhaus and (re)discover Backhouse for ourselves, because, as Sandhaus points out – while “Décadence” might not be accurate – it does make for an outrageous read.

Illustration by Huang Shuo (黄硕)

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