The Wild Chinese Tales of Sir Edmund Backhouse

The Wild Chinese Tales of Sir Edmund Backhouse

Whether fantasist or gentle scholar, Sir Edmund Backhouse left a remarkable record of Manchu China, writes Andrew Gosling

On 3 December 1974, a package posted in Switzerland arrived at the National Library of Australia. It contained the typewritten autobiography of an eccentric British Sinologist, Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (1873–1944). By then almost forgotten, Backhouse soon gained international notoriety, his memoirs dismissed as fantasies.

Photograph of Sir Edmond Backhouse

‘Sir E. Trelawny Backhouse, Bart.’, The New China Review, vol.1, no.5, 1919,

The Backhouse family of Darlington in northern England had been prominent Quakers since the seventeenth century. Edmund’s grandfather represented Darlington in parliament, while his father, Sir Jonathan Backhouse, became a director of Barclay’s Bank. Another relative, James Backhouse, a Quaker missionary and botanist, wrote A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies, based on his extensive travels during the 1830s. The Backhousia genus of Australian flowering plants was named in his honour.

Edmund attended St George’s School, Ascot, where Winston Churchill was a fellow pupil. In their memoirs, both later recalled 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 did not complete his degree.

While at university, he ran up enormous debts and was declared bankrupt. Under a cloud, he moved to China in 1898. He remained there until his death, despite succeeding his father as baronet in 1918. Backhouse witnessed the last days of China’s Qing or Manchu dynasty (1644–1911), the turbulent Republican period that followed and the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Especially in his later years, he stayed well away from the foreign legation quarter. Adopting Chinese dress and customs, he gained a name among his fellow Europeans as a hermit.

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 G.E. Morrison (‘Morrison of Peking’), who never mastered spoken or written Chinese. He relied on Backhouse to gather and translate court documents and Chinese newspapers, which Morrison then turned into dispatches for The Times.

The frontispiece of China under the Empress Dowager, showing Tz’u Hsi

Frontispiece of China under the Empress Dowager: Being the History of the Life and Times of Tz’u Hsi … by J.O.P. Bland and E. Backhouse (London: Heinemann, 1910),

Backhouse’s reputation as a China scholar rested on two highly successful books he co-authored: China under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). He 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 Professor of Chinese at Oxford. He also donated exceptionally rare Chinese books to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The Bodleian describes the Backhouse Collection as ‘one of the finest and most generous gifts in the Library’s history’. A later donation of manuscripts proved to be forged, but Backhouse insisted they were genuine.

In his final years, Backhouse prepared two volumes of autobiography. The Dead Past is an account of his youth, when he claims to have been the lover of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, French poet Paul Verlaine, British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, an Ottoman princess and other figures of the Naughty Nineties. The much longer Décadence Mandchoue, or Manchu Decadence, concentrates on his first decade in China. It describes his real or imagined affairs with nobles and commoners, and also with the Empress Dowager Cixi (Tz’u Hsi) at the Summer Palace. Cixi was the last great Manchu ruler of China until her death in 1908. Sir Edmund wrote in his memoirs:

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.

Reg Alder, Marriage of Captain Alastair Morrison and Hedda Hammer, with Vaughn Miesling, Peking 5 July, 1946, b&w photograph, nla.obj-140413093

If it were not for the involvement of two Canberra residents, it is unlikely that the Backhouse autobiographies would now be at the National Library. The first was Alastair Morrison, son of Dr G.E. Morrison. Alastair and his wife Hedda (née Hammer), the renowned photographer, had learned about the memoirs from Backhouse’s literary executor, Dr Reinhard Hoeppli, the honorary Swiss consul during the Japanese occupation and a mutual friend.

The second was historian Dr Lo Hui-min of the Australian National University, who undertook research on Dr Morrison and Backhouse. Lo’s two-volume edition of G.E. Morrison’s correspondence includes the latter’s opinion that Sir Edmund ‘possesses extraordinary abilities. He is one of the greatest scholars England possesses’. Relations between the two men later soured. The Australian was the first to doubt the authenticity of a diary by a high Manchu official, Jingshan, which Backhouse claimed to have found in 1900. The diary became the centerpiece for his bestselling China under the Empress Dowager, written jointly with J.O.P. Bland. In his memoirs, Backhouse categorically denied that it was a fake. Lo Hui-min later wrote an article proving that Dr Morrison was right and that the diary was indeed a forgery.

Backhouse became notorious in 1976 as the subject of a damning biography. After Dr Hoeppli’s death, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was asked to examine the Backhouse manuscript by its Swiss custodians. In Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, Trevor-Roper dismissed the autobiography as historically worthless fiction by a man he called a forger, confidence trickster and fantasist. He concluded, ‘Backhouse’s ‘memoirs’ are not an edifying work. They are a pornographic novelette’, and unpublishable. He was wrong on the final point. Décadence Mandchoue did appear in print in 2011. A Chinese-language edition has also been issued in Hong Kong.

Not everyone has accepted Trevor-Roper’s systematic condemnation of Backhouse and his memoirs. Derek Sandhaus, who edited the published version of Décadence Mandchoue, has written that, whatever his faults, Sir Edmund:

knew Peking and its people better than just about any of his foreign contemporaries … [Décadence Mandchoue], his final work, is a eulogy for the [Qing] dynasty, an erotic love letter to a bygone era. Even if it were completely fabricated, and I do not personally believe that it was, it would still be an engaging and often hilarious historical fiction by a well-informed linguistic genius.

Hardy Wilson, The British Legation at Peking, c.1925, pencil drawing, nla.obj-153530669

Whether gentle scholar or scoundrel, Sir Edmund Backhouse was a remarkable man. The National Library is fortunate to house a rare copy of his extraordinary adventures evoking late Victorian England and late Manchu China.

Andrew Gosling is the former Chief Librarian, Asian Collections, at the National Library of Australia, and author of the Library’s Asian Treasures: Gems of the Written Word (2011). He would like to thank Damian Cole, Acting Manager, Reader Services, Pictures & Manuscripts, for providing him with details from the Library’s Backhouse acquisition file.