Edmund Backhouse: Decadence Mandchoue

17 Mar 2011

I first started hearing about Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) years ago from Brendan O’Kane and Dave Lancashire. A “self-made sinologist,” he was apparently fluent in Chinese and quite well connected, but was also later exposed as a magnificent fraud. A prolific diarist, he also dwelled quite a bit on the sexy details of the Qing Dynasty.

Anyway, it may at times be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in Edmund Backhouse’s story, but it’s quite a story. So I’m really looking forward to reading a new book called Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, which makes a lot of Backhouse’s memoirs available for the first time. From the Amazon page:

> Published now for the first time, the controversial memoir of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Decadence Mandchoue, provides 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 the author’s death in 1943, was dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than a pornographic noveletteA” and lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Yet even the most incredible tales deserve at least a second opinion. This edition, created using a combination of the three original manuscripts held by the Bodleian, has been comprehensively annotated, fully translated and features an introduction by editor Derek Sandhaus, urging a reappraisal of Backhouse’s legacy. Alternately shocking and lyrical, Decadence Mandchoue 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.

Full disclosure: I’m friends with Derek Sandhaus, editor/author of the book. But that doesn’t make this book any less awesome.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Really looking forward to reading this. Disappointed there is (as of yet) no Kindle edition, though 🙁

  2. Not so, Mr. Biesnecker. Kindle edition will be available on Amazon on April 1.

  3. Quite enticing. How did you hear about this book?

  4. …provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle

    I see what you did there!

    I did a little bit of work on this to check on the Chinese. It was pretty amazing to finally be reading this after having only heard about it for so many years. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a print copy. Backhouse is something of a personal hero of mine, and more people really need to know about him — though I suppose if they do find out, I won’t be able to use “Ed Backhouse” as a pen name anymore. He was the original 老外混子 — our patron saint.

  5. I’ve read “Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse”. Sir Edmund Backhouse comes off as a bit of a weirdo, much like foreigners that hate seeing other foreigners in China – taken to another level. If you can’t wait for the book you describe (it sounds awesome), I recommend the Hermit of Peking.

  6. Ed Backhouse was gay, correct? Not that it matters but it is a different perspective.

    • Jesus, did I say that? You can delete this comment, I dont know what I was thinking but it sounds pretty stupid to me now.

  7. If you haven’t already read it, I’d like to recommend “Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China” by Sterling Seagrave, a book that picks apart some of the sensationalist stories spread by Backhouse, but manages to make the more complex and nuanced reality just as gripping as the legend.

    • Sounds like a good complement to Backhouse. Here’s an Amazon link:

      • I love Amazon’s “look inside” feature. As for Decadence Mandchoue,I would enjoy it so much more if I didn’t know it was likely fabricated. I’m going to read it anyway.

    • justinchina Says: June 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      Sterling Seagrave…not proactively spreading sensationalism? i’ll buy the book just to see what that looks like!

  8. dahuangtu Says: March 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    No serious historian or scholar would trust Backhouse. He has an appalling record of forgery and dishonesty, and Decadence Mandchoue adds nothing to the study of Chinese history. Please don’t treat it as any sort of historical source for anything but Backhouse’s sexual fantasies.

  9. Backhouse may be given to invention but Seagrave too is master of publishing tabloid rumour as fact — see his Marcos book. As for Hugh Trevor Roper, he put his name to the authenticity of the Hitler Diaries, a poor fake if ever there was one. And no one doubts that Backhouse was in Beijing and was fluent in the language — unlike either Seagrave or T-Roper.

  10. Today I received a “just shipped” notice from Amazon, so the book is now available.

  11. Kati Kang Says: April 9, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    I have read this book in Chinese version (April 6th) and wrote a Review for one magazine in Hong Kong. It is great boo and worth to read. Anyone who is interested in Qing dynesty culture and history should read this book! Sir Edmund Backhouse is obviously brilliant linguist!!!!! Yes, the book contents lot of sexuality but it is not the kind of cheap and dirty sex book!!! As a person myself grow up in Manchuria, I do like this book very much, I have learnt great deal of Qing dynesty’s custom which is dead out since 1949 when New China is in the position!!!

    • Paulos A. Dula Says: April 17, 2011 at 5:27 am

      Hugeh Trevor Roper- the Faciest British historian was flately wrong all along on African history,Hitler, Kim Philipy and now Edemond Backhouse,who dismissed his entire scholarly work as a fraud. Now Roper is chortling as his half wits acolytes repeate what he had written about Edmond Backhouse, the true scholar and lingustic genius! I can waite to read this new book which defied the views of those Eurocentic

      • Trevor-Roper (who won’t be chortling over anything – he’s dead) was not a Fascist. What a load of garbage.

  12. K. Shepherd Says: September 5, 2011 at 7:29 am

    I think Backhouse has been done a tragic disservice by Trevor-Roper who had a number of agendas and prejudices to
    realised. The issue is that Backhouse was a triple agent he
    worked for the Manchus and the Japanese intelligent servicesas well as the British but his loyalities lay with the first two. One has to understand the “forged” documents and his actions from this perspective. His charade as a British agent was to impede the British endevours during the First World War. Also he rightly articulated the importance of sexuality in political structures. Something most historians want to overlook.

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