En Chine, la vie est libre, heureuse, totale, sans conventions, sans préjugés, sans lois… pour nous, du moins… Pas d’autres limites à la liberté que soi-même… à l’amour que la variété triomphante de son désir.”
Octave Mirbeau – Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden)
The recent publication of Sir Edmund ‘Bacchus’ Backhouse’s China memoirs, ‘Décadence Mandchoue’, (Earnshaw Books, 2011) has revived an old controversy, namely the veracity of Sir Edmund’s claims, the reliability of his work as a whole, and more topically, the value of his writings, regardless of whether they are founded in fact or not. Until the publication in 1976 of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Hermit of Peking’, Backhouse was best known, if he was remembered at all, as the co-author, along with the journalist J. O. P. Bland, of the popular works of history ‘China Under the Empress Dowager’ (1910) and ‘Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking’ (1914).
Trevor-Roper recounts how he was asked to authenticate Backhouse’s memoirs prior to publication, but found them so scandalous and untrustworthy that he decided to investigate the author further, and discovered that not only were the memoirs romanced, but also that Backhouse’s published works were largely based on forgery. This had long been suspected, but seemingly Sir Edmund had managed to gain the benefit of the doubt. ‘The Hermit of Peking’, a piece of literary detective work in the manner of A. J. A. Symon’s ‘The Quest for Corvo’, not only debunks most of Backhouse’s outrageous claims, but also uncovers the series of fraudulent endeavours, literary or otherwise, that Sir Edmund embarked upon throughout his variegated career. (See here for more details.)
Trevor-Roper’s study seemed to thoroughly rubbish Backhouse’s memoirs and cast his scholarship into discredit. However it would appear that matters may have been more complex than Trevor-Roper was willing to admit. [Completing this triptych is Bernard Wasserstein’s ‘The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln’, which, again draws uncanny parallels between the careers of mystification of Trebitsch Lincoln and Backhouse – who were both in China at the same time – but without speculating further. – “Birds of that feather do not flock together!”]
Questions of literary merit or historical accuracy aside, it may not be without interest to mention one possible source of Backhouse’s memoirs – or rather, another work that may very well stem from the same ‘source’ – namely, the gossip surrounding the imperial court at the time. A previous installment provided some information on as well as illustrations from this curious French work from the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1899, a French military physician, Dr J.-J. Matignon, attaché to the French Legation in Peking, published a series of articles and lectures under the title ‘Superstitions, Crime et Misère’, essentially comprising studies of what the author terms ‘social biology’, on such varied topics as feng-shui, footbinding, eunuchs, homosexuality, and Chinese medicine, accompanied by numerous woodblock prints, photographs and illustrations… After going through a number of reprints, this work was later revised and augmented, in 1936, as ‘La Chine Hermétique’.
What will retain our attention here are the chapters on eunuchs and pederasty respectively. Considering that some of the more novel aspects of Sir Edmund’s memoirs are his salacious account of his alleged affair with the Empress Dowager, his claims of intimacy within circles of power and his depiction of homosexuality in late Imperial China, we find a number of striking parallels in Matignon’s work. These concern the secret influence of eunuchs, trysts between the Empress and Europeans, and pederasty in Chinese society.
After giving an outline of the functions, social history and medical conditions of the eunuchs, Matignon relates the following anecdote:
Les eunuques peuvent parfois être chargés de missions de confiance. Il y a quelque vingt ans, un attaché de notre Légation s’était lié avec l’eunuque favori de l’Impératrice-mère. Celle-ci, très désireuse de voir un Européen, dans son costume le plus primitif, fit faire, par cet eunuque à notre compatriote, des avances qui, malgré l’attrait de leur originale nouveauté, ne purent faire succomber sa vertu.
Of course, this remains mere hearsay, but it is possible to note a number of intriguing implications: that some foreign diplomats did, in fact, enjoy close relations with eunuchs in positions of power; and that such rumours concerning the Empress Dowager were already in circulation as early as the 1870s.
Grand Eunuch Li Lien-ying
Similarly, another intriguing literary parallel with ‘Décadence Mandchoue’, noted by Dr Hoeppli and Trevor-Roper, is ‘René Leys’, the novel by Victor Segalen, written in 1912 but published posthumously in 1922. ‘René Leys’ is, in our view, a much more profitable read, a work of fiction based as it is on a compelling combination of fact, hearsay and Segalen’s masterful storytelling. Incidentally we should remark that the empress referred to in ‘René Leys’ is Longyu, Empress Dowager Xiaoding, widow of Guangxu and niece of Cixi – not Cixi herself. (Read this blog for a detailed review and analysis of ‘René Leys’, including a comparison with Backhouse. Read ‘René Leys’ in French here.)
Empress Dowager Cixi
The second aspect that bears some relation to Backhouse’s memoirs is that of homosexuality. According to the overly optimistic view that the memoirs are based – or partly based – on reality, then it is admitted by some scholars that they provide an insight into homosexuality in the Qing Dynasty, a field in which there would be, we are told, a paucity of information. As will be evidenced from the following excerpts from Matignon’s work, we shall see that this is not quite the case:
Un de mes vieux amis, qui connaît bien les Chinois, grâce à une longue pratique des habitants de la Terre Fleurie, établissait, un soir après-dîner, comme un axiome que «tout Chinois qui se respecte pratique, a pratiqué ou pratiquera la pédérastie». Bien que fort paradoxale, au premier abord, cette boutade, il faut le reconnaître, renferme un grand fond de vérité, et le nombre des Chinois «qui se respectent» est considérable. La pédérastie est, en effet, extrêmement répandue dans l’Empire du Milieu. Toutes les classes de la société s’y livrent, et tous les âges, les jeunes comme les vieux, en sont friands…
…Il existe, partout en Chine, des maisons de prostitution où les pédérastes trouvent des petits garçons ; quelquefois les établissements sont mixtes… Ces établissements sont de notoriété publique et les Étrangers peuvent, sans aucune difficulté, y pénétrer.
La curiosité, purement sociologique, m’a conduit deux fois dans les maisons de prostitution où se trouvent des petits garçons ; de jour, d’abord, de nuit, ensuite, pensant que je serais moins dégoûté, et après chaque séance, je suis sorti profondément écœuré de ce que j’avais vu, comme avilissement et perversion. Ces établissements se trouvent à Tien-Tsin et les Européens y sont admis sans difficulté, car beaucoup, m’a-t-on affirmé, – chose que j’ai hésité à croire ! – sont des clients assidus de ces bouges, cent fois plus ignobles que les maisons les plus infectes de nos ports de mer. Pékin est également bien pourvu de ces «tang-ming-eul» (maisons publiques), mais il est difficile aux Européens d’y pénétrer.
A ‘Sian-Gon’; a transvestite male prostitute (photo: Matignon)
A second view, much more ‘relativistic’ than the first, holds that, irrespective of their veracity, the memoirs somehow have a literary value, being a prime example of exotic erotica and ‘gay writing’; however, further considerations lie beyond the scope of this brief piece.
The revised edition of ‘La Chine Hermétique’ contains a number of references to ‘China Under the Empress Dowager,’ qualified as a ‘beau livre’. Furthermore, Matignon spent ten years or so in China (1891-1901), and was in Peking at the time of the siege of the Legation quarter during the Boxer Rebellion – as was Backhouse. There is no way, of course, of finding out whether they knew each of other, but it quite likely that Backhouse would have known of Matignon’s books – and the anecdotes and rumours they reported.
To conclude, we find that Backhouse’s claims were neither new nor original, yet, on the other hand, not completely impossible. Matignon’s work shows that Westerners did frequent brothels, including homosexual ones, and did have dealings with influential eunuchs, and that there was at least one who was rumoured to have been the object of the Empress Dowager’s attentions. Whether this lends any credence to Backhouse’s assertions is another matter; one for the informed reader to judge. As to the value of the book itself, if Sir Edmund’s claims cannot be shown to reflect reality, then, are we, according to Hugh Trevor-Roper, left with a “pornographic novelette” in which “No verve in writing can redeem [its] pathological obscenity”? That is a matter for the sympathetic reader to decide…
That ardent defender of the Empress Dowager, and scourge of Western Orientalists, Ku Hung-ming, summarized an article of his criticizing Bland and Backhouse’s work in his book ‘The Spirit of the Chinese People.’ In light of Backhouse’s memoirs, it is worth quoting in full:
I have wanted to include in this volume an essay I wrote on J.B. Bland and Backhouse’s book on the famous late Empress Dowager, but unfortunately I have not been able to find a copy of that essay which was published in the ‘National Review’ in Shanghai some four years ago. In that essay, I have tried to show that, such men as J.B. Bland and Backhouse do not and cannot understand the real Chinese woman – the highest type of woman produced by the Chinese civilization viz the late Empress Dowager, because such men as J.B. Bland and Backhouse are not so simple, – have not the simplicity of mind, being too clever and having, like all modern men, a distorted intellect.
Ku Hung-ming; “The Spirit of the Chinese People”
Notes and Links:
•‘Décadence Mandchoue’ was published in Chinese by New Century Press as «太后與我» (‘The Empress Dowager and I’).
• The epigraph to this piece was taken from Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden) by Octave Mirbeau, a French author Backhouse was more than familiar with, and whom he quotes in ‘Décadence Mandchoue’.
• Read a previous article on the works of J.-J. Matignon, including numerous photos and illustrations: ‘La Chine Hermétique: Superstitions, Crime et Misère’
• Readers knowledgeable of French will find a number of different editions and formats of Matignon’s book online:
• A scan of the first edition @ the Internet Archive.
• A scan (OCR) of the second edition @ Gallica.
• A text edition of the second edition @ Les classiques des sciences sociales.
• Lisez ‘René Leys’ de Victor Segalen en format PDF @ Gallica.
Both of Backhouse’s main works are available online @ the Internet Archive:
• China under the Empress Dowager (1910)
• Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking (from the 16th to the 20th Century) (1914)
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