Pomp and porn during the Qing Dynasty
Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - What are 21st-century sinologists supposed to do with Decadence Mandchoue, the salacious and almost certainly invented memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse? In the earlier part of the 20th century, the English baronet was regarded as one of the pre-eminent China scholars of his time, but he has since been revealed as a habitual liar and fraud.
This is a man who claimed that, at the age of 32, even though by nature he was homosexual - indeed, ravenously so - he became the favorite lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), then 69, whose oversized clitoris she would deftly employ to his pathic delight. And, when Sir Edmund wasn't frolicking with the "Old Buddha", as she was affectionately known, he was giving it to just about any young, attractive eunuch in her service. Sex with
eunuchs - and with catamites in the "bathhouses" of Peking (now Beijing) - was Backhouse's preferred form of eroticism.
As Decadence Mandchoue begins, it is an April afternoon in 1899, and Backhouse is about to meet the love of his life - whom he dubs "Cassia Flower" - in one of the city's male brothels, but their passionate love-making will be cut short a year later by Boxer Rebellion riots that force the establishment to shut down. Backhouse will never see Cassia Flower again, but the memory still burns bright in the memoirs he wrote at the end of his life, 45 years later.
His true heart may have been with Cassia Flower, but when the empress called, Backhouse was nevertheless dutifully and erectly present, even if a powerful aphrodisiac was required to get him through prolonged nights requiring three to four orgasms with his insatiable, near-septuagenarian royal partner. This exacting sexual schedule continued until shortly before Cixi's death, at 73, in 1908 - or so these memoirs attest.
By the way, did you know that Cixi, de facto ruler of China for 47 years, did not die of natural causes, as history records? No, she was murdered - with three brutal, point-blank shots to the abdomen - by none other than Yuan Shikai, one of the eight regional viceroys during her reign who was later to become second president of the Republic of China.
All that's according to Cixi's chief eunuch, Li Lien-ying, who happened to be Backhouse's best friend and so gave him the exclusive scoop, not to mention his personal diaries detailing all of his years of service to the empress. Unfortunately, those diaries are nowhere to be found; nor can any of the other corroborating "papers", claimed but conveniently "lost" by the author, be located.
There is also no reason to believe in an affair Backhouse alludes to with the famously gay Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Add to the long list of tall tales the meeting he recounts with iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
What readers are left with is, quite probably, the steamy, self-aggrandizing fiction of a lonely, dying old man - once celebrated for his scholarship and linguistic genius - who wrote to comfort and distract himself during the final year of his life, 1943-1944. Moreover, Backhouse's overwrought Victorian prose - replete with frequent allusions to classical Western and Chinese literature and studded with bon mots in French, Latin, Chinese and other languages (all of this sometimes in the same maddeningly interminable sentence!) - was quaintly antique at the time of his death but now seems downright absurd.
So why publish this stuff? Has Hong Kong's Earnshaw Books (and New Century Press, which is publishing the Chinese translation) rescued a lost text of historical significance or committed the foolhardy act of resurrecting an oversexed fantasist who tricked people in his own time and now has the opportunity to do it again? The answer, it seems, is a little of both.
In his time, Backhouse was highly regarded in Peking for his ability as a researcher and translator. He worked for The Times of London and, in collaboration with another Times correspondent, JOP Bland, wrote two best-selling books on China: China Under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). These two works were pivotal in shaping Western perceptions of the Qing court under Cixi.
Backhouse was accused of forgery, however, by another Times correspondent, Dr George Ernest Morrison, for his heavy reliance in China Under the Empress Dowager on the diary of a high court official, Ching Shan, a source later proved to be a fabrication.
The accusations against Backhouse were never fully substantiated during his lifetime, but in 1976, 32 years after his death, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a damning biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which revealed the once-revered sinologist to be an inveterate fraud, a licentious homosexual and, even worse, anti-British.
Trevor-Roper characterized Backhouse as a hermit because of his tendency to avoid other foreigners in Peking and expressed disdain for his loss of faith in British constitutional monarchy and his apparent attraction to the fascism that had taken hold in Europe and Japan in the run-up to World War II.
As for his bawdy memoirs - which had been gathering dust on a shelf at Oxford University's Bodleian Library since Backhouse's death - Trevor-Roper wrote: "No verve in writing can redeem their pathological obscenity."
Yes, Trevor-Roper was a homophobic snob who himself would later be implicated in the Hitler Diaries hoax. He may have been too quick to consign the talented and eccentric Backhouse - among only a few Westerners in his time to have intimate knowledge of and contact with the Chinese - to the dustbin of history.
And so - thanks to the efforts of Earnshaw Books' chief editor Derek Sandhaus - Sir Edmund, fraud that he was and remains, lives again in passages like this one describing the first of his many romps with the aging Cixi in her boudoir at the Summer Palace:
... I took in my hands her abnormally large clitoris, pressed it toward my lips and performed a [s]low but steady friction which increased its size. She graciously unveiled the mysteries of her swelling vulva, even as that of Messalina, and I marvelled at the perennial youth which its abundance seemed to indicate. Again, we are asked to believe that Cixi was a ripe and ravishing 69 years old when she thus "presented" herself to Backhouse. Even if this unlikely coupling ever took place, it assuredly did not transpire as described by the author.
She allowed me to fondle her breasts which were those of a young married woman; her skin was exquisitely scented with the violet to which I have made allusion; her whole body, small and shapely, was redolent with la joie de vivre; her shapely buttocks pearly and large were presented to my admiring contemplation: I felt for her a real libidinous passion such as no woman has ever inspired in my pervert homosexual mind before nor since.
In other chapters, Backhouse describes a vampire prince, lightning-struck lovers and oracles with crystal balls that recapture the past for the Empress Dowager while also foretelling her future - quite wrongly, as it turns out. Backhouse was, as he tells it, present for all of this and duly records what he heard and saw, including rattling tables and revelatory messages from the spirit world during a seance.
In one particularly bizarre chapter, Backhouse is enjoying the pleasures of young male prostitutes in a Peking bathhouse when the Old Buddha crashes the orgy dressed as a man and insists on watching. A eunuch and a well-endowed bath attendant are bidden to perform for the empress and, as Backhouse reports, the show is well received: "Everything went swimmingly (like a fish in midstream) and in due course ejaculation into the pathic's rectum was faithfully accomplished. This achieved, both parties rose and kowtowed to the Empress ..."
But, her curiosity not yet sated, Cixi then orders a young imperial duke to also serve as pathic in the extended sexual fun and, after this, there follows a display of "69" - which Backhouse points out (in case you didn't know) is called "soixante neuf" in France and which (again, in case you didn't know) "is only easy when the parties are of the same length".
After a while - unless you're a homophobic prude like Trevor-Roper - all this starts to become interesting and amusing, and you can understand why a Swiss doctor named Reinhard Hoeppli, who befriended and tended to Backhouse in his declining years, urged the old man to write these crazy tales down.
And, now, finally, here they are, wrapped in Backhouse's bloated, ostentatious prose. While their worth may be highly uncertain, one thing is sure: In the annals of Sino-Anglo history, there is nothing else quite like Decadence Mandchoue.
For that alone, Backhouse (or "Bacchus," as he liked to call himself) deserves his uneasy resurrection.
Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse.
Earnshaw Books (April 1, 2011). ISBN-10: 9881944511
List Price: $39.99. 336 pages.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org