Thu, Oct 17, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: Decadence Mandchoue

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Decadence Mandchoue, by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse.

Sex and bibliography are a potent mix for a certain kind of mind. Such a person will be fascinated by Decadence Mandchoue, an extraordinary, astonishing and altogether exceptional book that has had a strange history and was at first considered too pornographic to publish. It was later judged to consist largely of fantasy wish-fulfillment, which delayed its appearance even longer. Now it has finally been issued complete, and few will believe it isn’t, in all the ways that matter, essentially a record of fact.

Edmund Trelawny Backhouse left Oxford without a degree in 1895, having helped raise money for the defense of Oscar Wilde and, according to his own account, had sex with him. He then traveled east, was granted an audience with the Tzar (arranged for him by Tolstoy), and arrived in Beijing in 1898. He lived there, largely eschewing the company of other Westerners, and becoming fluent in Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian, with a modicum of Tibetan, until his death in 1944.

In the early 1940s, however, he met the Swiss honorary consul, Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli, and started talking to him about his past. Hoeppli was so astonished he begged him to write it all down, and offered to pay him for any resulting manuscripts. Backhouse consequently produced The Dead Past and Decadence Mandchoue, the former dealing with his youth in England and Europe, the latter with his first decade in China, from 1899 to the death of the Empress Dowager in 1908.

The reason both books were considered too erotic to publish were that Backhouse was an out-and-out homosexual and an enthusiast for flagellation, with both interests extensively displayed in Decadence Mandchoue, and that he claimed to have been summoned for sex by the Empress Dowager — on account of his linguistic fluency, pro-China stance and generously-sized genitalia — somewhere between 150 and 200 times over a period of five years.

Publication notes

Decadence Mandchoue

By Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse.

297 Pages

Earnshaw Books

Hardback: Hk

The Dead Past still awaits publication, though editor Derek Sandhaus has examined the manuscripts and typescripts that Hoeppli deposited on Backhouse’s instructions in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. (Copies of the final typescripts were also sent to libraries in London, Paris and at Harvard.) But Decadence Mandchoue, excellently edited, is now available for all to read.

An important factor in these books’ neglect up to now is that six months after Hoeppli’s death in 1973 the Backhouse manuscripts were handed, at Basle Airport, to the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Though originally planning to have them published, Trevor-Roper found the material distasteful, and on investigating Backhouse further found him to be a habitual liar and a fraud. He published these conclusions in his damning 1976 book Hermit of Peking, which essentially consigned the previously esteemed Sinophile to the scrap-heap for 35 years.

Today, historians are far more inclined to take Backhouse’s memoirs at face value. Frank Dikotter, for instance, writes as follows: “Trevor-Roper’s best-selling Hermit of Peking turned Sir Edmund Backhouse, a playful and eccentric sinologist, into a caricature of deception. Through a combination of painstaking archival research and brilliant scholarship, Sandhaus not only rights the historical record, but also makes a persuasive case for the historical veracity of what must count as one of the most outrageous, colorful and hilarious memoirs ever written, so pornographic that they make Burroughs’ Naked Lunch look like a fairy tale for children.”

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