The Hermit of Peking
Sir Edmund Backhouse was either a monumental fraud and fabulist or one of the most fascinating characters to appear in the final stages of the Qing Dynasty, allegedly a lover of the 69-year-old Empress Tz'u Hsi and an eyewitness to her death. Earnshaw Book, in conjunction with Hong Kong New Century Press, is now publishing his autobiography, which has never been published due to his sensational and salacious accounts.The book is the subject of a presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on April 6. Here is a portion of the introduction to the book, written by the editor of the memoirs, Derek Sandhaus.
In 1939, a mysterious old man moved to the Foreign Legation Quarter of Japanese-occupied Peking. Dressed in an ankle-length robe with a long white beard and a brimless cap adorned with a large red gemstone, he could easily have been mistaken for an aging Chinese gentleman. He spoke the northern dialect beautifully and addressed the local servants with a familiarity that must have seemed shocking to the foreign resi dents of the Legation Quarter meeting him for the first time.
But the man was not Chinese, he was an Englishman, once one of the most famous foreigners in all of China. After years of quiet scholarship on the western edge of the city, he had abandoned his home and pos sessions, believing that the Japanese occupiers had left him no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere. As in 1900, when the Boxer and Manchu soldiery laid siege to the Legation Quarter demanding foreign blood, the threat of violence had driven him to rejoin his compatriots.
Soon after the start of the Pacific War a couple of years later, another Legation Quarter resident, a Swiss physician named Reinhard Hoeppli, passed the man in his rickshaw. Hoeppli's Manchu rickshaw puller, upon noticing the man, informed Hoeppli that they were in the pres ence of greatness. The man they had passed, the rickshawman said, was rumored to have once been the lover of the late ruler of all China: the Empress Dowager Tz'u Hsi. His name was Edmund Backhouse.
Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,1 a British baronet of well-established Quaker ancestry, was born in Richmond, Yorkshire in 1873 and educated at St. George's School, Ascot; Winchester College and later Oxford University. He failed to complete his undergraduate studies, but he was a voracious learner with a rare gift for languages. By the time he arrived in Peking in 1898, he professed fluency in French, Latin, Russian, Greek and Japanese. Less than a year later, he was working as an interpreter and informant for The Times and the British Foreign Service. "No one in Peking," wrote Dr. G.E. Morrison of The Times, "approaches him in the ease with which he can translate Chinese."
In 1903 the Chinese government appointed him professor of law and literature at the Imperial Capital University (later known as Peking University). A year later, we find him as an agent of the British Foreign Office, gaining fluency in Mongolian and Manchu.
The crowning moment in Backhouse's career came in 1910 when, together with another Times correspondent, J.O.P. Bland, he published Chi na under the Empress Dowager. This book provided readers with the first comprehensive look at the last great ruler in Chinese imperial history as she presided over a tottering Ch'ing Dynasty. Written in an accessible and entertaining style, the book contains an incredible depth of knowledge, owing largely to the book's central text, "The Diary of His Excellency Ching Shan," supposedly discovered by Backhouse during the looting that followed the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. An international bestseller, the book was declared a masterpiece and when the Ch'ing Dynasty collapsed a year later, its reputation, and Backhouse's too, seemed unshakeable.
This was just the beginning of the story. Sir Edmund co-authored an other book with Bland, Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914), also highly regarded for its scholarship, and donated a large collection of valu able printed Chinese books, together with a few scrolls and manuscripts, to the Bodleian Library at Oxford between 1913 and 1922. In 1918, working with Sir Sydney Barton, he completed a revised version of a Chinese-English colloquial dictionary by Sir Walter Hillier, a respected diplomat and sinologist. It was on Hillier's personal recommendation that Back house was also appointed chair of the Chinese department at King's College, London, but he was unable to fill the position on account of ill health.
Backhouse's contemporaries described him as eccentric, soft-spoken, polite and exceedingly humble. He was a charming and engaging conversationalist, yet he was also a recluse. For almost all of his 45-odd years in Peking, he lived far away from the protective bubble of the For eign Legation Quarter. Abandoning the dapper style of his earlier years, he adopted Chinese dress and customs. He went out of his way to avoid contact with Westerners in the city, sending servants ahead to places he intended to visit to make sure there were no foreigners present. He even went so far as to cover his face when passing foreigners in a rickshaw. Yet despite these quirks, almost all who met Backhouse found him hospitable and entertaining.
After his death in January 1944, Backhouse seemed destined to pass quietly into respectable obscurity. He may have done just that if not for British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.
In 1976, Trevor-Roper published A Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse (later republished and more commonly known as Hermit of Peking. which painted a very different and somewhat sinister portrait of Backhouse.
The book charged that Sir Edmund perpetrated systematic perjury, fraud and deception. The authenticity of the Ching Shan diary in China under the Empress Dowager had already been questioned during Backhouse's lifetime, but few had suspected him of being the forger. Trevor-Roper not only accused Backhouse of deliberately playing a role in the diary's fabrication, but also uncovered evidence indicating a pattern of fraud and deceit in other realms. He showed that Backhouse repeatedly lured people into bogus business ventures, ranging from the sale of nonexistent imperial jewelry all the way to covert international arms transactions using fictitious weapons shipped on imaginary boats. Backhouse was able to get away with it, says Trevor-Roper, because the foreign community was ill-informed about China and inclined to believe the treachery of the Orientals as the primary cause of any wrongdoing.
The most shocking revelation in Trevor-Roper's book was that Back house had, in his final year, authored two outrageous and obscene autobiographical manuscripts, The Dead Past and Décadence Mandchoue. In these, his "memoirs," Backhouse chronicled his youth in England and Europe (The Dead Past), and his life in China during the twilight years of the Manchu Ch'ing Dynasty (Décadence Mandchoue). He claimed not only to have met many of the most notable literary and political figures of his era, but also to have slept with them. In often highly graphic detail, Sir Edmund recounted his sexual escapades with personages including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Paul Verlaine and Prime Minister Salisbury. The love affairs to which he confessed were almost exclusively homosexual, with one notable exception: China's longtime despot, the Empress Dowager Tz'u Hsi, who died in 1908.
Before passing judgment, Trevor-Roper added one last charge to his list of Backhouse's offenses: treasonous sympathy for the enemy. In his final years, he says, Backhouse showed great admiration for the Axis powers, and took a visible delight in their victories over the Allies. His fascist fixation was no product of senility, says Trevor-Roper, as his writ ings were filled with a longing for the days of European despotism and showed a profound respect for iron-fisted leaders of the Napoleonic mold. In his country's darkest hour, Trevor-Roper says, Backhouse turned coat.
Backhouse was, in Trevor-Roper's estimation, "both socially and intellectually, a snob," yet undeservedly so, in that he was neither high-class nor sophisticated enough to put himself on the same plane as those with whom he claimed association. Backhouse's shallowness, born of the "insolent deviation" of 1890s aestheticism, stuck with him through out his life and devolved into his later fascist leanings.
His vanity, says Trevor-Roper, also caused him to invent wild self-aggrandizing fantasies, which he increasingly confused with reality. So convinced was Backhouse of his own imaginings, Trevor-Roper says, that he could recount them without a moment's hesitation down to the minutest of details. His rich imagination in tandem with abundant natural charm provided an irresistible talent for deception and manipulation, often to the great detriment of those who trusted him.
Trevor-Roper concludes that Backhouse was fundamentally unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, and that whatever historical value Backhouse's writings might once have had, they were completely overshadowed by their author's chronic unreliability.
Given his dubious track record, says Trevor-Roper, we should assume that The Diary of His Excellency Ching Shan in China under the Empress Dowager was a willful forgery perpetrated by Backhouse himself, while the sensational memoirs were merely "a pornographic novelette."
"No verve in the writing can redeem their pathological obscenity," Trevor-Roper says. They should be considered, he added, nothing more than the salacious imaginings of a closeted homosexual, the "last explosion of repressed and distorted sexuality."
The charges stuck. With the publication of Hermit of Peking, Sir Edmund Backhouse and his contributions to Chinese scholarship were relegated to the dustbin. He became nothing more than a historical curiosity, the punchline to a dirty joke. To the extent that he was remembered at all, it was as a pathetic homosexual fantasist and a con artist.