Recording date:

Andrew Gosling explores how after considerable difficulties, the Library succeeded in obtaining Backhouse's real or imagined adventures in late Manchu China.

Speakers: Alex Philp (A), Andrew Gosling (An)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 29/03/2017



A:            Good afternoon, everyone, it’s wonderful to see such a great turnout today, thanks for all coming along. My name’s Alex Philp and I’m the Director of Overseas Collections and Metadata Management here at the National Library. Before we start I’d like to acknowledge the Nanbury and Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and to pay our respects to their elders past and present.


It’s always a delight for me to welcome these ALIA Asia Pacific Special Interest Group talks and today’s one as you know is titled How a Scandalous Chinese Memoir Came to Canberra. Today’s speaker is Andrew Gosling who I’m guessing is known to most of us. Many of you will know Andrew from one of his previous and always entertaining APSIG talks. I think the most recent one included a book from the 1700s, which showed pictures of exotic southern hemisphere sea creatures and gave instructions on how best to cook them.


Andrew worked here at the National Library for many years, and when he retired, he was the Chief Librarian of Asian Collections and prior to that spent some years working as the Library’s representative in Jakarta where he was finding, acquiring and sending a wide range of Indonesian publications here to the National Library. It’s a truly wonderful legacy of work from which our readers continue to benefit today so thank you for that, Andrew.


Late last year we employed Andrew to work on a project on our collection of Chinese pith paintings. We asked Andrew to do this because of his rigorous research skills, his deep knowledge of the Library’s collection management practices and nothing at all to do with Andrew’s practice of regularly bringing in boxes of chocolate. Andrew researched the works and improved the catalogue records, he produced this research guide – note to self, pick up research guide – and it’s available through the Library’s website. I encourage you to have a look and there’s also a link there for Andrew’s video on the project as well.


The National Library’s wonderful collection is being put together through many different ways, we receive Australian publications, both print and online, free of charge, through legal deposit, we purchase many, many items from Australia and overseas through vendors and we invest a great deal of time working with collection donors hoping to one day receive their manuscripts and pictures. We also have a large program of interviewing people for our oral history collection. So as a collection manager myself I can’t wait to hear the story of how we ended up with this wonderful item. We will have time for questions at the end of Andrew’s presentation but please join me in welcoming Andrew Gosling.




An:         Thank you, Alex. So today my topic is Sir Edmund Backhouse and How His Scandalous Chinese Memoirs Came to Canberra. There he is in his old age, in 1943 and it’s a photo by Serge Vargassoff, a Russian-born photographer who was in Peking at the time. I’m grateful to APSIG, particularly Maree Sexton, for asking me to speak today about an extraordinary man and his equally extraordinary memoirs. I also wish to thank the National Library, especially Alex and Dee Oyang for help with images, the display and other arrangements for this talk. Apart from my own photos the images are all courtesy of the Library or from Wikimedia Commons. I’m also most grateful to Damien Cole, Acting Manager Reader Services, Pictures and Manuscripts for providing me with details from the Library’s Backhouse Acquisition file.


First a warning, when it comes to the subject of my talk, Sir Edmund Backhouse, it’s difficult to be certain what is true. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by the historian, Robert Bickers, begins by calling him a sinologist and fraudster and ends, not a word he said or wrote can be trusted. This does not make for an easy talk but perhaps my topic is fitting in an age of fake news and alternative facts.


On the 3rd of December 1974 a package posted in Switzerland arrived at the National Library. It contained the typewritten autobiography of the eccentric British sinologist, Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse who lived from 1873 to 1944. Sir Edmund insisted that this surname should be pronounced Bacchus, as in the classical god of wine and merrymaking, but other family members say it’s simply ‘Backhouse’. After his death, he was more or less forgotten, but in 1976 gained international notoriety in a scathing biography published that year, Hermit of Peking, The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse. That’s actually a photo of my very battered Penguin copy.


The historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, dismissed the memoirs as historically worthless fiction by a man who was a forger, confidence trickster and fantasist. One recent Australian critic has described Trevor Roper’s book as a hatchet job. My own interest in Backhouse and his memoirs dates back to my reading Trevor Roper and then wondering how and why the Library had managed to acquire one of only four typed copies of the autobiography and the only one held outside Europe. The Backhouse family of Darlington in northern England had been prominent Quakers since the time of John Backhouse who was jailed in 1661 early in the reign of Charles II. He refused to pay taxes as a protest against religious persecution. One of his sons was jailed for the same offence and died in jail.


The Backhouse family prospered as bankers, missionaries and botanists, they established Backhouse Bank which financed the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first passenger train service. In the mid-19th century, Edmund’s grandfather, also called Edmund Backhouse, and I’m sorry I don’t have a photo – he has an equally fantastic beard, I think to Sir Edmund – represented Darlington in Parliament as a Liberal while his father, Jonathon Backhouse, became a Director of Barclays Bank and was made a baronet in 1901 for services to the Liberal Party.


Sir Jonathon was the first in the family not to be raised as a strict Quaker. According to Trevor Roper Sir Jonathon’s four sons between them repudiated all the peculiar Quaker virtues of passivism, veracity and thrift. Passivism was certainly discarded by three of them, Edmund’s younger brothers all joined the armed forces and two became admirals, Sir Roger ending his career of Admiral of the Fleet and dying just before the second world war. Veracity and thrift will feature prominently in my talk.


From an Australian perspective the most interesting relative was James Backhouse, a Quaker, missionary and botanist who also has quite a good beard, I think. He visited Australia between 1831 and 1838 writing extensively on local conditions including the treatment of Aborigines and convicts. His travels are recorded in his letters and in A Narrative of a Visit to The Australian Colonies published in 1843. He also collected plants and seeds in Australia which were sent back to Britain. The Backhousia genus of Australian flowering myrtle was named in his honour.


Now back to Sir Edmund. That’s him aged 45, clean-shaven around 1919. He wrote that his childhood was ideally unhappy. I was born of wealthy parents who had everything they wanted and were miserable. I heard not a kind word nor received any sympathy. He attended St George’s School, Ascot where Winston Churchill was a slightly younger fellow pupil. In their memoirs both recall the cruelty of the headmaster, a sadistic tyrant, in Backhouse’s words. From there Edmund moved to Winchester College and then in 1892 to Merton College at Oxford where he read classics and studied Asian and European languages privately. He suffered a breakdown in 1894 and left the University the following year without completing a degree.


While at university he ran up large debts and was declared bankrupt. As Trevor Roper says, in him long generations of Quaker frugality at last took their revenge. Under a cloud he moved to China late in 1898. There’s no known documentation supporting his claim that he was sent to China on a diplomatic mission. He remained there ‘til his death despite succeeding his father as baronet in 1918. Although he became Sir Edmund he continued to receive just a modest allowance from his family. When he died early in 1944 he was succeeded in the baronetcy by his nephew, John Edmund Backhouse, son of Sir Roger. Sir Edmund Backhouse witnessed the last day of China’s Qing or Manchu dynasty and just got a map showing you the extent of that at its height in the 18th century. The Manchu’s tungusic-speaking tribes from northeast of the Great Wall had been united by the early 1600s under their leader, Nurhaci as a strong political, military and economic force just outside the Chinese empire.


As China’s Ming dynasty which – the dates are 1368 to 1644 – as it weakened, the Manchus with a far smaller population than China were able to conquer and govern the empire by winning the cooperation of prominent Chinese, as well as leaving existing structures largely intact. The first century and a half of Qing rule have been called the last great flowering of traditional Chinese culture. The country was stable and prosperous under capable rulers, in particular Kangxi, that’s him in his old age who ruled – reigned from 1662 to 1722 and completed the Manchu conquest of China while Qianlong who ruled from 1736 to 1795 extended the nation’s boundaries. This gives me the chance to show some depictions of Manchu rulers from the Library’s extensive and now fully digitised collection of Chinese paintings which Alex has just told us about. So here we have an Emperor and an Empress.


During the 19th century Qing power waned under pressure from internal revolts and foreign incursions by western powers in Japan. We have a couple of Manchu ladies from very late in the Qing dynasty. Shortly after Backhouse arrived in Peking the boxer rebellion broke out in north China in 1899. Here we have a boxer rebel. The boxers were antiforeign and opposed to Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts. The Qing court encouraged the boxers as a way of stemming western influence but when foreign troops came to the rescue of their diplomats besieged in Peking in 1900 the court was forced to appease the west in Japan. Revolution finally ended the dynasty in 1911.


We’ll now return to Sir Edmund. His exceptional linguistic skills included Chinese, Japanese, Manchu, Mongolian and a number of European languages. From 1899 he assisted the Australian correspondent and political adviser in China, Dr George Ernest Morrison. That’s a pastel drawing of him from 1912. Morrison never mastered spoken or written Chinese, he – although he was – he’s often known as Morrison of Peking or Chinese Morrison – he relied on Backhouse to gather and translate court documents and Chinese newspapers which Morrison then turned into despatches for The Times. In 1903 Backhouse was appointed as a part-time professor at the newly-created Peking University. He appears to have held the position for about 10 years ‘though the duties do not seem to have been very demanding.


Backhouse’s reputation as a China scholar rested on two highly successful books of which he was co-author with The Times journalist, J O P Bland. They were China Under the Empress Dowager which was published in 1910, and Annals and Memoirs of a Court of Peking, 1914. He also collaborated with Sir Sidney Barton on a revised edition of Hillier’s Pocket Dictionary of Peking Colloquial in 1918. That’s a later edition. His first book, China Under the Empress Dowager had a strong influence on western views of the late Manchu period in China. It depicted the Empress Dowager, the effective ruler of China for nearly 50 years, as intelligent and capable. Backhouse and Bland described her as a woman of unusual courage and vitality, of strong will and unbounded ambition but given to vindictive ferocity on occasions and imbued with a very feminine love of luxury, addicted to pleasure and at one period of her life undoubtedly licentious. I’ll have more to say about that a bit later.


Many editions have appeared including one published in Hong Kong as recently as 2011. As Bland readily admitted most of the text was from Backhouse, ‘though turned into smoother English by Bland. Backhouse – that’s him in 1919 again – hoped to gain an academic post back in England. In 1913 he was offered the Chair of Chinese at King’s College, London but declined it, claiming poor health. For many years he waited in vain to be appointed to the more prestigious ‘though much less well paid Chair of Chinese at Oxford. He also donated valuable Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese books to the Bodleian Library at Oxford including six volumes of the exceptionally rare Yongle Encyclopaedia. In doing this he hoped to smooth his path to the professorship. The Bodleian describes the Backhouse collection as one of the finest and most generous gifts in the Library’s history containing many fine Chinese editions, much of its content is unique in the west and exemplifies the art of Chinese printing in all its variety. A later presentation of 18 manuscripts proved to be forged, in fact quite crudely forged but Backhouse always insisted they were genuine.


After 1921 Backhouse ceased travelling and remained in China for the rest of his life. He became more reclusive and stayed well away from the foreign legation quarter except in times of crisis. Adopting Chinese dress and customs he avoided other westerners ‘though when they occasionally called on him he was always polite, charming and good company. Among the few characteristics agreed on by his admirers and detractors are his impeccable manners and charm.


In the early 1930s he and Bland discussed the possibility of writing a third book together, this time based on the diary of the Manchu Court’s chief eunuch. Nothing came of this and no such diary ever came to light. Bland and Backhouse fell out more than once and at one point Bland wrote of Sir Edmund, I have come to the end of my patience with this gelatinous individual. Backhouse also claimed he was preparing a major Chinese dictionary. If so it was apparently lost in mysterious circumstances in 1939 along with his other papers and books.


After the Japanese attacked in 1937 his family sent him a ticket home to England but he sold it. When the Pacific war began in December 1941 Backhouse’s remittance ended, he moved into the British Legation Compound which we show here – a drawing by William Hardy Wilson whose major collections of drawings on China are held here at the Library and that dates from about 1925. He was not interned by the Japanese because of his age and fragility. In 1942 he converted to Catholicism and spent the last months of his life in a French Catholic hospital. As we shall see his memoirs do not read like a confession in any conventional sense.


In his final years Backhouse prepared two volumes of autobiography, The Dead Past is an account of his youth and by the way on display, you’ll be able to look later but please don’t touch. I’m very pleased that the manuscript copies of the autobiography are up here. Manuscripts has kindly allowed them to be displayed. So to go back, The Dead Past is an account of his youth, he claims to have been the lover of the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, French poet, Paul Verlaine, the British Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, and an Ottoman princess who according to Sir Edmund preferred him to another admirer, Lord Kitchener. The much longer Decadence Manchu or Manchu Decadence concentrates on his first decade in China, 1898 to 1908, very, very little really about the rest of his life in China, a little bit.


That is the recently published edition of Decadence Manchu. It describes his real or imagined affairs with nobles and commoners but in particular with the Empress Dowager Cixi at the Garden of Cultivated Harmony, usually known as the Summer Palace. That’s a photo of her from 1900. This is her main residence, she is the chief focus of the memoir. Nearly 40 years older than him she was the last great Manchu ruler of China until her death in 1908. Born in 1835 she was a minor consort of one emperor but mother to his only surviving son. From 1861 she became Regent to her infant son when he succeeded to the throne. When he died in 1875 she became Regent to her nephew, exercising direct or indirect power for nearly half a century. She was long regarded by Chinese and western authors as a corrupt reactionary despot who prevented China’s modernisation and helped bring about the fall of the Qing dynasty. Some other more recent studies have seen her as a strong woman, defending China against foreign aggression and trying to modernise the country.


Backhouse wrote in his memoirs that when she died masses were chanted daily at dawn, noon and eve for the repose of her soul and as I listened to the melancholy plain chant of those Tibetan choristers I felt that they were verily singing a farewell requiem to my buried happiness, to our affection that shall not and cannot die. Here we actually have Backhouse and that’s Bland, his co-author, with the dogs there on the other side, Backhouse showing off his wonderful beard.


He completed his autobiography at the urging of Dr Rinehart Herpley. Herpley was an eminent parasitologist and honorary Swiss Consul in Peking during the Japanese occupation. The Swiss Government looked after British and other western interests during the war. Herpley befriended the ailing Backhouse and treated him as a patient. He paid for and edited the memoirs. In February 1946 he added a postscript saying that the work was unsuitable for ordinary publication but that he had prepared four typewritten sets. They were to be given after his own death to the British Museum Library in London, the Bodleian at Oxford, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and Harvard in the United States. The original handwritten version and first typed copy were to go to the Bodleian.


While this may have been Herpley’s original plan, it is not what happened after his death early in 1973. In the National Library’s typescript, the final section of his 1946 postscript listing the four recipient libraries has a pencil line through it and a note, also in pencil, dated the 26th of September 1972. It indicates that the page was to be changed. The third and fourth typed copies were actually donated to the University Library in Basel, Switzerland and the National Library of Australia. This was pointed out in 1975, in the second volume of Cliff Burmester’s National Library of Australia Guide to the Collections. However, the most recent major work on Backhouse, Derek Sandhaus’ Scholarly Edition of Decadence Manchu which I showed a minute earlier, published in 2011, only refers to Herpley’s earlier intention that they be sent to the Bibliotheque Nationale and Harvard.


Incidentally, Burmester’s Guide makes no clear reference to the love affairs which are such a major theme of the memoirs. Burmester also includes Backhouse’s doubtful claims that he worked on the personal staff of the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, his supposed lover, and that he first went to China on a diplomatic mission. Burmester’s Guide also states that in 1913 Backhouse returned to England and took up the professorship in Chinese at King’s College. As already mentioned he declined the offer supposedly through poor health. This is no criticism of the Burmester Guide, which was prepared before the publication of Trevor Roper’s book questioning Backhouse’s veracity.


If it were not for the involvement of two Canberra residents, it’s extremely unlikely that the Backhouse volumes would now be at the National Library. The first was Alastair Morrison. That’s – actually that’s a picture of Alastair and Hedda Hammer-Morrison - Hedda Hammer-Morrison’s a very famous photographer, of course - at their wedding in 1946 in China so Alastair with the glasses on and Hedda and an American friend on the other side. Alastair was son of Dr G E Morrison. Alastair and his wife, Hedda Hammer-Morrison, the renowned photographer as I mentioned, had been friends with Herpley in China during the 1940s. In 1953, the Swiss doctor stayed with the couple when they were stationed in Sarawak where he told them about the memoirs. In response to Trevor Roper’s charge that Herpley naively accepted Sir Edmund’s writings as truthful Alastair Morrison later wrote Herpley was a sophisticated intellectual, he was not taken in by Backhouse but had enough in common to be able to sympathise with him, and to some extent to understand him. At the same time Herpley was entertained by Backhouse’s bizarre and scandalous recollections.


The second Canberra citizen was the historian, Dr [Lo Quimin] 23:36, of the Australian National University who undertook research on Dr Morrison and Backhouse. Lewis Magnum Opus, a two-volume edition of G E Morrison’s correspondence includes the latter’s opinion that Sir Edmund showed extraordinary abilities. He is one of the greatest scholars England possesses.


Relations between Dr Morrison and Backhouse later soured. The Australian was the first to doubt the authenticity of a diary by a high Manchu official, Qishan, which Backhouse claimed to have found after the anti-foreign boxer rebellion in 1900 and then to have translated. The diary became the centrepiece for his bestselling, China Under the Empress Dowager, and that’s the title page.


In his memoirs, Backhouse categorically denied that it was a fake. In 1991 [Lo Quimin] published an article in the ANU Journal, East Asian History. It proved once and for all that Dr Morrison’s suspicions were right, the diary which did not match other Chinese documents about Qishan, was indeed a forgery. [Lo] also planned a book on Backhouse and the forged diary to be called, The Quest of the Ghost of Qishan, but sadly he never completed it.


On the 27th of September 1967 Alastair Morrison wrote to his old friend, Herpley, asking him to send a set of the Backhouse memoirs to the National Library for Dr Lo’s research. In Alastair’s words, Herpley, in his reply of the 28th of November, said that he would not diverge from his promise to Backhouse that the memoirs were not to be made available until after his own death - I’m sorry about the double negative there - basically he wouldn’t do anything there.


Herpley agreed that if one of the libraries selected to receive them after his death did not want them then they should go to Australia instead. Later the two men agreed on Alastair’s revised idea that the British Museum make a reproduction of its copy for Canberra. There were no further developments for six years. On the 12th of February 1974, a year after the event, [Lo Quimin] informed the National Library of Herpley’s death. The Library contacted its liaison officer in London, David Barron, asking that the British Museum arrange copying of the typescript. The Museum referred the matter to the Bodleian Library, which held the original. Barron reported back to Canberra on the 1st of August that the Bodleian would not agree to photocopy the memoirs because of copyright and other restrictions. Even though Alastair Morrison provided his correspondence with Herpley, which Barron showed to the Bodleian, it was to no avail.


However there was a breakthrough on the 7th of September. The Bodleian told the National Library they had consulted with the source of their copy, a Dr Ruldolf Geigy, a friend and former colleague of Herpley. Geigy said that Dr Barbara Begglesbarker, another of Herpley’s friends, would be willing to supply Canberra with a copy of the memoirs in her keeping. On the 8th of October, she wrote to the National Library saying, she’d posted the manuscript which as I mentioned earlier. It was received on the 3rd of December 1974 and that’s what’s sitting there. She was also responsible for donating a copy to the University Library in Basel. Incidentally, when I was preparing an article about Backhouse, I wrote to Dr Begglesbarker in Switzerland – she’s still in Basel – asking if she could provide a bit more information about her role, but I didn’t receive any reply.


After Herpley’s death, Hugh Trevor Roper, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was asked to look at the Backhouse manuscript by its Swiss custodians. They saw him as a reputable British scholar who would be in a position to judge its worth. Originally, he planned to have it published but when he examined it closely and started to doubt its veracity, he decided to write a biography of Backhouse instead. As I mentioned at the beginning of this talk he called the sinologist’s writings, historically worthless fiction. In Hermit of Peking Trevor Roper concluded, Backhouse’s memoirs are not an edifying work, they are a pornographic novelette and unlikely ever to be published. He was wrong on the final point, Decadence Manchu did appear in print in 2011. So far nobody has published the other volume, The Dead Past, so the National Library houses one of only a handful of manuscript copies.


Sir Edmund Backhouse seems in no danger of being forgotten. The publication of Decadence Manchu with is numerous passages in Chinese, French, Latin and other languages translated into English and its erudite references explained in meticulous notes has made the memoirs far more accessible. So has the appearance of a Chinese language edition in Hong Kong, also in 2011. Backhouse and Herpley both appear prominently in the Australian author, Linda Jaivin’s lively novel, The Empress Lover. Set in contemporary China it harks back to the past. On the first page, Sir Edmund recalls his own life story, a wild tale, farfetched and fantastical but I assure you of its veracity.


Jaivin quotes from Decadence Manchu which she calls Sir Edmund’s infamous erotic memoir of his affair with the Empress Dowager, a dense and hilariously pedantic manuscript. It’s interesting that Jaivin like Sandhaus find much humour in Backhouse unlike Trevor Roper for whom the memoir seems to be only pornography and lies.


Opinion is divided between those, like the historian, Robert Bickers who accept Trevor Roper’s systematic condemnation of Backhouse and his memoirs and those who feel Trevor Roper went too far. Derek Sandhaus, who as I said edited the published version of Decadence Manchu, believes Trevor Roper was prejudiced by his dislike of Backhouse’s sexuality and the latter’s expressed hostility towards his native country and admiration for Japan in the second world war. Sandhaus thinks the Hermit of Peking is mean-spirited and narrowminded in its assessment of Sir Edmund. Sandhaus states that Trevor Roper failed to consult China’s scholars or people who knew Backhouse in China. He concedes Trevor Roper has shown Backhouse took many liberties with the truth but believes that whatever his faults Sir Edmund – and this is a quotation – knew Peking and its people better than just about any of his foreign contemporaries. The Memoir, his final work, is a eulogy for the Qing dynasty, an erotic love letter to a bygone era. Even if it were completely fabricated it would still be an engaging and often hilarious historical fiction by a well-informed linguistic genius.


At this point I should say a little more about the style of the memoirs. Although written in the 1940s they read much more like a work from late Victorian England by a highly-educated man with a love of languages and cultures. In the words of Professor T H Barrett of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, his affection for the Chinese language and the law it embodies shines through the pedantic display of erudition which disfigures his written style.


The sexual passages which prevented publication for nearly 70 years are certainly highly explicit and make up about a quarter of the text. They combine graphic erotic scenes with Chinese, Latin, French and other literary and historical illusions. Here are a couple of examples of his style which will disappoint anyone wanting the steamier chapters. Sorry. This is his description of the Empress Dowager. That’s actually a portrait of her by an American artist, Katharine Carl, painted in 1903. Fairly flattering, I’d say a very flattering picture of her.


At first sight, she gave to one the impression of a dear, good-natured elderly lady who wished to look juvenile, kind-hearted to a fault, fond of gossip, very anxious to win others’ good opinion and inclined to be touchy. But as one listened to her conversation, now and then the expression of her eyes completely changed as she alluded to some personal incident which had caused umbrage, those eyes which could fascinate and terrify, that Medusa-like stare. It was the basilisk glance before which China’s greatest men had quailed.


Queen Victoria – here we see her looking fairly amused – features prominently in the memoirs. The following dialogue dates from August 1904 when Backhouse says he accompanied the Empress Dowager and other court ladies by boat on the lake at the Summer Palace. “Tell me, was Queen Victoria in love with her attendant, for long? That’s John Brown, her Scottish servant. I have seen a photograph of him carrying her in his arms across a stream near her summer resort, Balmoral, and he looks very handsome and amorous. Madam, the late Queen made herself most ridiculous by the attention she paid to him. In fact, the people of her Scottish capital mocked the Queen by shouting ‘Mrs Brown’ at her carriage. Didn’t Victoria have the rebels punished for their treason? I’d like to see the people of Peking mocking me”.


We come back to the veracity or otherwise of Backhouse’s memoirs. As Professor Robert Aldrich of the University of Sydney has asked, are they fact, fiction or a mad mixture of both? Unless further Chinese or western sources come to light, we may never know for certain. Dr Herpley recounts that in the early 1940s he passed Backhouse in a rickshaw. Herpley’s Manchu rickshaw-puller told him that the man they had just seen was famous for being the lover of the Empress Dowager.


After the publication of Trevor Roper’s Hermit of Peking a document was discovered revealing that when the boxer rebellion had been supressed a British Army officer, Major De Boule, was responsible for returning looted treasures to the Manchu court. He was assisted by Backhouse. In his memoirs, Sir Edmund claimed that he first met the Empress Dowager when she thanked him personally for returning such treasures to the palace. While none of this proves he really did have a relationship with the Empress Dowager, and most writers remain sceptical, it is intriguing.


Whether gentle scholar or scoundrel or a combination of the two Sir Edmund Backhouse was a remarkable man. The National Library’s fortunate to house a rare copy of his extraordinary adventures evoking late Victorian England and late Manchu China. If you’re interested in knowing more about the Manchus who ruled China as the Qing dynasty and the National Library’s rich holdings on this period do read Dr Nathan Woolley’s Celestial Empire, Life in China, 1644 to 1911. He wrote it to accompany the exhibition of the same name that he curated here last year. It features holdings from the National Libraries of China and Australia. Celestial Empire is available to read in the Library or to buy at the Library’s excellent bookshop. So too if I can do some publicity of my own book, is my book, Asian Treasures, Gems of the Written Word - there is a slight connection – which describes a number of the Library’s rare books, maps and manuscripts from Qing dynasty, China as well as other precious works from across Asia.


I might finish with another warning, this time about the dangers of disturbing the ghost of Sir Edmund Backhouse. Having exposed his frauds and deceptions in Hermit of Peking Hugh Trevor Roper was himself caught out badly in 1983 when he authenticated the forged Hitler diaries ‘though he did soon change his mind. As we have seen the Australian scholar, Dr [Lo Quimin] proved that the Manchu diaries supposedly discovered and translated by Backhouse was a fake. In 1986 and again 1991 [Lo Quimin] wrote that he was preparing a book about Sir Edmund and the forgery. He never completed it ‘though he lived until 2006. According to Burmester’s Guide to the National Library Collections Dr Lo was actually working on a book about Backhouse even earlier, in 1975.


I’ve had my own minor troubles with Backhouse. I originally wrote an article about him for the National Library magazine three years ago. Publication was delayed and then set for September last year, but the magazine ceased in June. Luckily in December a condensed version was included in the first issue of the Library’s new online magazine, Unbound. A couple of weeks ago the USB with the latest draft of my talk for today mysteriously ended up in the washing machine and no, I have to confess it was not backed up properly, which is shocking. To my relief it survived the ordeal and was still useable so I am able to address you this afternoon. Thank you.




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