Review of Decadence Mandchoue

Indefatigable reiteration

Backhouse, Edmund Trelawny. Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse. Ed. Derek Sandhaus. Hong Kong: Earnshaw, 2011.

Make no mistake about it: Decadence Mandchoue is a work of pure fantasy, for the most part a remarkably monotonous fantasy, of sex, sex, sex. I can’t imagine anyone reading through the whole thing unless he has a real taste for Victorian gay pornography; I don’t, so it was skip, skip, skip. The few non-pornographic bits are something else, though; these are like fragments of a late Victorian historical romance, an Anthony Hope imitation with Peking as Ruritania. If that makes it sound appealing, give it a shot, but be aware that this is only a small part of the book.

The author of this really odd book, presented as an autobiographical memoir, was Edmund Backhouse, the subject of a really interesting book, The Hermit of Peking, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Backhouse was originally known as a somewhat eccentric sinologist who published two books on Qing Dynasty politics in collaboration with British journalist J. O. P. Bland, and who gave the Bodleian Museum one of the best collections of Chinese books in Europe. Trevor-Roper, however, uncovered a lot more interesting information than this, and The Hermit of Peking is much more entertaining (for the most part) than Decadence Mandchoue.

Still, the starting point for Trevor-Roper’s book was in fact just Backhouse’s two volumes of reminiscences: Decadence Mandchoue is the second, the first remains unpublished. Trevor-Roper was asked to authenticate them and was immediately interested by the incredible nature of the stories the books told. After diligent spadework, he dug up some remarkable information about the complex scams and fantasies that Backhouse inflicted on anyone unlucky enough to get involved with him. Naturally anyone who is interested in this book should read Hermit of Peking first, otherwise most of it won’t make any sense, not even the sex.

Oddly, though, Trevor-Roper comes in for some heavy criticism in the introduction from the editor of Decadence Mandchoue, Derek Sandhaus. I find most of this criticism hard to accept.

For instance, Sandhaus complains that Trevor-Roper did not make any attempt to “consult Backhouse’s Chinese and Manchu contemporaries.” He concedes that Trevor-Roper could hardly have gone to Peking in 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, but insists that “he could have spoken with former Peking residents who had left China around the time of the Communist takeover in 1949. These people would have been in a unique position to confirm or refute Backhouse’s claims.”

In fact, Trevor-Roper did consult Peking residents: he talked to Harold Acton, Henri Vetch, Roland de Margerie, Hope Danby, Humphrey Prideaux-Brune, and to William Lewisohn, a true contemporary of Backhouse, 90 years old when Trevor-Roper contacted him. Most of these people actually met Backhouse; some, like Danby, saw him often and must count as friends, others, like Lewisohn, tried to unravel some of Backhouse’s complicated literary scams and showed Trevor-Roper their correspondence with Backhouse.

Sandhaus would apparently discount all these people and insist on Chinese acquaintances, but except for his servants, Backhouse’s Chinese acquaintances are unknown. How was Trevor-Roper to contact them? You need names first, and no one ever got names of real Chinese acquaintances out of Backhouse. When the American Bank Note Company was trying to figure out what happened to their contract for 650 million banknotes, they interviewed the Chinese politicians Backhouse claimed he had made his crooked deal with: Hsu Shih-ch’ang, former President, and Tuan Ch’i-jui, then Prime Minister. Their response: Never heard of him. Signature on the contract? A forgery.

Given Backhouse’s skill at concealing virtually all of his personal life, I think Trevor-Roper did the best that could be done. Of course he did not have the skills to dig into the Chinese side of things, but because of the fake diary that Backhouse produced for his work with Bland, both Western and Chinese scholars looked hard for his Chinese acquaintances (or accomplices). Nothing has turned up and the origin of the fake diary remains a mystery. This silence is puzzling. A number of Western scholars studied and lived in Peking in this period, and show up in various reminiscences, Chinese and Western, but not Backhouse. The best we can get is a claim from a Backhouse acquaintance that a rickshaw puller once told him there was a rumor that Backhouse used to be the lover of the Empress Dowager. How did the puller know the rumor? How does anyone know a rumor? “Some dude told me.”

Behind Sandhaus’s criticism of Trevor-Roper lies an idea: there is, somewhere, somehow, some fragment of truth to Backhouse’s memoir, and in justice to Backhouse we must examine his work sentence by sentence, confirming or refuting until we have found it. Please. Trevor-Roper found plenty of evidence that there were outrageous lies in Backhouse’s memoirs. No doubt it might be an entertaining process to try and find some truth in them as well, but we need not delay any decision on how much to rely on Backhouse without examination. You’d have to be nuts to believe a word he wrote.

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