What, then, makes Decadence Mandchoue so outrageous?
First, the Empress Dowager. She was 67 when Backhouse met her in 1902; he was 29. The age difference, plus the fact that Backhouse was essentially gay, may appear unfavorable circumstances. But the Empress Dowager was sexually voracious, we’re told, going into the city in disguise at night, high on opium, to seek out men. Besides, an order from such eminence couldn’t easily be refused. To facilitate the arrangement, Backhouse would be provided with cups of aphrodisiac drugs by her attendants (which acted “most potently in my person”), and in addition she was fully aware of his sexual tastes and did her best to satisfy them. Details are too specific to print here, but in his book Backhouse displays no such reluctance.
It’s Backhouse’s gay experiences, though, that get most detailed coverage, so much so that Hoeppli detects an element of boasting. Even so, the first chapter (on a gay brothel, the “Hall of Chaste Pleasures”) and the sixth, on a gay bath-house, are extraordinary for any era. Princes, eunuchs, Peking-opera stars and notably helpful attendants all combine in orgies of sexual stimulation.
The greatest climax at the bath-house, however, occurs when the Empress Dowager arrives on the premises in disguise (quickly discarded) and demands to see the various gay ways of making love. She applauds each demonstration and hands out gratuities. Everything appears acceptable to her, so long, she says, as the participants didn’t neglect their conjugal responsibilities (the traditional Chinese obligation, in other words, to marry and produce offspring).
How much of this is true? Probably almost all of it. There’s a long tradition of heterosexuals refusing to believe the sheer numbers of contacts many gays have, or even that people who they respect in other ways could be gay at all. Few believed in Roger Casement’s “black diaries” — listing almost daily erotic acts with men whose names he never discovered — except when it was politically advantageous to do so. A. J. Ayer refused to believe his fellow philosopher Wittgenstein was gay when it was first mooted. Similarly, Trevor-Roper perhaps found Backhouse’s recollections unbelievable because they were, to him, so improbable, not to say deeply uncongenial. A man who has had two or three sexual contacts in a lifetime can’t easily credit someone who freely admits to thousands.
Hoeppli does recall Backhouse agreeing to change details in his book when it was pointed out they were contradicted by the facts, but he didn’t think this cast doubt on the memoirs as a whole. Backhouse may have had a strong imagination, and he certainly did describe some scenes that others who were present had told him about, in the way a historian might. But what motive would someone like Backhouse, aged 70, have had for whole-scale invention? My view is that these memoirs are essentially truthful, with an artist’s touching-up of minor details. Both Hoeppli and the editor at Earnshaw Books, Derek Sandhaus, concur in essence with this position.
There were other reasons, though, why Trevor-Roper — not a man to be dismissed lightly — distrusted Backhouse. These involved schemes to buy and sell armaments and certain imperial treasures. On these matters it’s impossible to make any independent judgment. But there’s also the issue of the diary of one Ching Shan, a high court official. Backhouse included it in his 1910 co-authored book China Under the Empress Dowager, and when challenged about its authenticity by Hoeppli replied that if it was a forgery, he, Backhouse, hadn’t forged it. Lastly there are the voluminous diaries of the Chief Eunuch at the turn of the century, Li Lianying (李蓮英), one of this book’s great characters. He’d given them to Backhouse who took them to the UK in 1921, depositing them at Lloyds Bank. According to Trevor-Roper they’ve never surfaced.