Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Edmund Backhouse, Derek Sandhaus
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In 1898 a young Englishman walked into a homosexual brothel in Peking and began a journey that he claims took him all the way to the bedchamber of imperial China's last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Tz'u Hsi. Published now for the first time, the controversial memoirs of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Décadence Mandchoue, provide a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China's imperial palace, with its rampant corruption, grand
conspiracies and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1976 bestseller "Hermit of Peking," which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before the author's death in 1943, lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than “a pornographic novelette." But Décadence Mandchoue is much more than that. Alternately shocking and lyrical, it is the masterwork of a linguistic genius; a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse's chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians' understanding of the era, and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.
September massacres a female prisoner at La Force drank a cup of fresh blood to save her father’s life),44 rallied from his trance of terror, trembled in every limb, sank upon the floor and muttered inarticulate sounds, while the Old Buddha played with him even as a cat with a mouse or as a boa constrictor with the rabbit or cochon d’Inde45 which it fascinates with that stony, basilisk fixity of gaze. “Come here, Ts’en Ch’un-hsüan,” called out the well-known falsetto; “I want a word with you
drinking (Horace, Odes I.XLVII.1). 50 Was being whipped. 51 “Vegetable Market”, Peking’s execution ground at the time of this story. 52 I say what I saw, not what I know from hearsay. 53 “Ministry of Education”. This claim is technically correct. Backhouse was appointed professor of law and literature at Imperial Capital University (later Peking University) in 1903 by the Chinese government, who must have been suitably impressed with his qualifications. He held the position for ten years. 54
votaries; the righteous movement against the ‘devils’ failed six years ago by Your Majesty’s will; because the principles of the cult were prostituted by impostors and by their sordid lust of gain. Descend from Heaven, I conjure and implore Your Majesty, and inflict upon this foul madman the punishment due for his ‘offence which is rank and smells to heaven’ (Hamlet), the effluvium rising even to your imperial Throne. Descend, then, Your Majesty, and pronounce upon the vile caitiff the penalty of
will advise the new emperor on all governmental business as joint Regents.” The Old Buddha’s wrath kindled even as thunder – Ta Fa Lei T’ing she shouted in her rage and fury: “You traitor, nay you two traitors. After all I have done for you, is this the way you repay my benevolence? I dismiss you both from your offices and shall order that you be handed for trial to the Minister of Justice. Though you die a thousand deaths, your retribution will be too light (Ch’ien Ssu Wan Ssu Pu Tsu Pi Ku ).
Roi Soleil’s death on September 1, 1715;43 it is dated September 15 of that year and after thanking her correspondent for her compliments de condoléance (“vous avez bien de la bonté, Madame, d’avoir pensé à moi dans le grand événement qui vient de se passer”): “J’ai vu mourir le Roi comme un Saint et un Héros… Je voudrais de tout mon coeur, Mme., que votre état fût aussi heureux que le mien; je suis dans la plus aimable retraite que je puisse désirer… quant à la société, on ne peut l’avoir avec