The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, best known for endorsing the authenticity of Hitler’s fake diaries, died recently.
One of the perhaps lesser known works of Trevor-Roper is “The Hermit of Peking” (available even as an audio book). This is a portrait of Sir Edmund Backhouse, an English Sinologue who went to Beijing in 1899 and lived there for many years, an illustrous character with more things up than on his sleeve.
Here are some extracts from John K. Fairbank’s review of “The Hermit of Peking”, published on April 14, 1977, in the New York Review of Books.
“A well-connected Englishman in Peking between 1901 and 1937 could enjoy maximal freedom to pursue private schemes and fantasies with minimal responsibility for their outcome. Peking was a hot-house forcing-bed for romantic role-playing. The southeast section of the city outside the armed Legation Quarter was inhabited by remittance men of alcoholic dignity, sociable widows of diplomatic background, superannuated musicians, stranded poets fond of boys, budding art collectors, sincere scholars, patriarchal ex-missionaries, archaeologist-priests, a whole Maughamesque cast of characters, variously motivated but all entranced by the sights, sounds, cuisine, and services of Peking. They were privileged to support servants and dealers, Chinese teachers (mainly Manchu), horse boys, amahs, cooks, guides, ricksha men, cleaning coolies, flower sellers, street peddlers, and many others who could give them contact with Chinese life. The foreign community savored this contact and vied to enjoy it. By the 1930s, however, there was one person whom they knew by name but never saw, the Sinologue Sir Edmund Backhouse, baronet, who had left them all behind by going native in the West City.
Backhouse’s masterpiece was “The Diary of His Excellency Ching-shan,” published as a key chapter in China Under the Empress Dowager (1910), an inside account of late Ch’ing court politics, documented by Backhouse, engagingly written by Bland, and in its time a unique and influential work. This diary Backhouse said he found in Ching-shan’s study shortly after his death in 1900 during the post-Boxer looting. Its contents picture the Empress Dowager’s confidant and commander, Jung-lu, as a moderate opposed to the Boxer excesses. Scholars have long since exposed its impossibly intelligent anticipations of events, its plagiarism of documents published later, but some like Bland clung to the idea that this fabrication had been foisted upon Backhouse, who remained innocent.” “Hermit of Peking demolishes this defense once and for all. Sir Edmund turns out to have been a confidence man with few equals, who repeatedly floated great financial schemes in high quarters and with the utmost secrecy, only to have them collapse each time as pure fantasies. Forgery was only one means by which he cleverly launched his dreams upon the world as facts.
Mr. Trevor-Roper’s detective work uncovers an impressive sequence of these fakeries. Backhouse’s father was a director of Barclay’s Bank. A younger brother became Admiral of the Fleet. But Backhouse himself fled Oxford in debt, went through bankruptcy, staying abroad, and turned up in Peking as a remittance man in 1899, aged twenty-five, already a mature imposter. To Sir Robert Hart he brought letters of introduction from the prime minister (Lord Salisbury), the Duke of Devonshire, and the colonial secretary (Joseph Chamberlain). This highly connected young man was shy, charming, and gifted at languages, claiming to “know” several. He soon became a translator of Chinese for Morrison, and later for Bland, with whom he eventually collaborated.
Backhouse’s forging of the Ching-shan diary was just a beginning. After 1910 he went beyond documentation into a series of enormously exciting practical put-ons. Part of his act was to claim an insider’s connections at the top of the other culture, as a close friend of the Grand Councilor Wang Wen-shao, the Grand Eunuch Li Lien-ying, Viceroy Hsü Shih-ch’ang, Prime Minister Tuan Ch’i-jui, Finance Minister Liang Shih-i, or anyone else appropriate. Such dignitaries were in the same city, often just down the street, but so impenetrable was the cultural-linguistic-social gap that few foreigners could ever question them about their friendship with Backhouse. He had the transcultural field to himself.
In 1910 he wangled a contract to be the agent of the great shipbuilding firm of John Brown & Co. By 1916 his “negotiations” with the Chinese government led the firm to produce “estimates and designs for six coastal-defence vessels of 10,400 tons for the Chinese navy.” But just then Backhouse disappeared from Peking and the deal evaporated.
Meantime he had pursued his great Chinese arms caper: in 1915, he became a secret agent for the British minister, Sir John Jordan, to purchase arms privately in China for use in Europe against Germany. The demand came from the War Office and Lord Kitchener himself. Backhouse, being so well connected in both Britain and China, seemed the logical choice to take sole charge of this delicate matter (China was neutral, Germany could object). Soon he reported success in locating hundreds of thousands of Mauser and Mannlicher rifles, hundreds of Krupp machine guns and field guns, all stashed away by local generals. He negotiated busily far and wide. Arms were “shipped” down the Yangtze. Deal followed deal. Money came from England. Vessels with arms left Shanghai for Hong Kong. Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office offered to ask Japan to send a cruiser to convoy them. The ships stopped at Foochow, but were rerouted and delayed at Canton.
Jordan, at the height of his career as the most powerful and knowledgeable diplomat in China, finally went directly to get action from President Yuan Shihk’ai, but Yuan inscrutably “professed complete ignorance of the whole transaction.” So circumstantially had Backhouse built up his fantasy in secret reports and cypher cables, including even German “diplomatic protests” to Yuan, that it took some time for the Foreign Office to become unmesmerized. Jordan had Backhouse tell the whole story to the top government fixer-financier, Liang Shih-i, who was amazed and said he thought Backhouse had been duped. Jordan reported “there has evidently been a split between Liang and the party with which Backhouse was working.” So strong was Backhouse’s plausibility! Only by degrees did Jordan conclude it had all been a hoax, fortunately a secret one.
Meanwhile the fecund Backhouse had started on his great banknote scheme. He “negotiated” a secret deal for the American Bank Note Company to be “the sole foreign printers of Chinese money for ten years.” The amount to be printed escalated. After Backhouse had had four personal “interviews” with President Yuan, the amount was to be 650 million banknotes. Late in 1916 Backhouse came to New York to report in person to the company. Back in Peking he handed over the Chinese contracts signed by president and prime minister. He received Â£5,600 commission. Then nothing happened. Finally the company’s agent went to court, Backhouse holed up in British Columbia, and his family bailed him out.
Since all these episodes had been kept secret, together with a number of similar incidents over the years, Backhouse had been able to nurture an academic career simultaneously. In 1913 he presented to the Bodleian Library a genuinely valuable collection of Chinese books including, for example, half a dozen volumes of the rare Yung-lo encyclopedia of the early 1400s. The 17,000 items in this collection were a real treasure. Oxford thanked him officially. He was elected to fill the chair of Chinese at King’s College, London. His second volume with Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914), was published and acclaimed.
But he pulled back from this career, pleading illness and eye trouble. After the war began, he resigned the King’s chair and returned to Peking. Later gifts to the Bodleian eventually became make-believe, winding up as the “famous Palace Library” in 58,000 volumes, which had to be transported 700 miles by cart to railhead in West Kansu before being shipped from Tientsin. The Bodleian never recovered the funds it advanced.
The final and conclusive proof of fakery, if any is needed, was provided by Sir Edmund himself in the two volumes of scabrous memoirs he wrote for the Swiss representative in Peking shortly before his death there in January 1944. They again offer detailed inventions to support the authenticity of the Ching-shan diary but are at the same time an obsessively pornographic homo-sexual account of a lifetime’s copulation with a long succession of the great figures of the age including Prime Minister Lord Rosebery (“a slow and protracted copulation which gave equal pleasure to both parties”) and also sexual services to the Empress Dowager, whom Backhouse estimates he saw for this purpose between 150 and 200 times!”
interessant ist doch immer wieder, wie CiXi zum sexuellen Monster stilisiert wird, nur weil die Herren Europäer (und auch andere Männer) Angst vor Frauen in Regierungsämtern haben..
habe mich trotzdem gefreut und werde versuchen, dieses Buch aufzutreiben
bin eine große Bewunderin der "Empress Dowager", seit ich in ihrem Sommerpalast-Garten zu Gast war
Bei amazon geht das Ding um die 17 EUR. Erstaunlich, wie billig es hingegen gebraucht von vorwiegend amerikanischen Anbietern angeboten wird: abebooks.
Was sieht man denn im Sommerpalast-Garten so an Spuren der Empress Dowager?
Na, CiXi hat den Garten anlegen lassen und die Gebäude bauen und das Marmorschiff meißeln lassen...
und in einem der Hofschranzen-Häuser war ich zu Gast, die wurden damals vermietet an "Individuals", heute dienen sie als Gästehaus von Siemens, wenn es noch so ist....
nach Schließung des Parks für das Publikum hatte man den See und die Pavillons und die Stille für sich, fast als sei man Privatgast beim Kini Ludwig auf Neuschwanstein, nur eben chinesisch...
das regte meine Neugier und Phantasie an und seitdem habe ich mich mit der Dame beschäftigt, vor allem mit der Verteufelung und Denunziation, der sie unentwegt ausgesetzt war, von chinesischer und von imperialistischer Seite (siehe Boxer-Aufstand und Botschafts-Viertel-Belagerung...)