The Confidence Man

Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse

by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Knopf, 316 pp., $10.00

Edmund Backhouse
Edmund Backhouse; drawing by David Levine

Peking charmed its Western residents early in this century because it had been a capital city of non-Chinese conquerors and Chinese collaborators for most of a thousand years. Founded in 947 as a capital of the Khitan Mongols’ Liao dynasty, it had been used similarly by the Tungusic Chin dynasty 1122-1234, then by the Mongols to 1368, and finally by the Manchus since 1644. When Anglo-French troops marched down its broad avenues in 1860, they were a new phenomenon only in their outlandish appearance. The Chinese servants and tradesmen of the ancient capital accepted the British and other Westerners as they had accepted their predecessors. Soon the Manchu and Chinese bureaucrats had the British helping them to defeat the rebels around Shanghai, just as they had a young Ulsterman, Robert Hart, helping with his Irish sensibility to give them new revenues from the foreign trade. Thus while Britain sought enthusiastically to legitimize, protect, and profit from her commercial expansion, China’s rulers made use of British aims and abilities for their own ends within China. The China wing of the British empire was taken faute de mieux into the management, incorporated into the Ch’ing dynasty’s shaky power structure.

Foreign residents enjoyed Peking all the more after 1900, when allied Christendom (plus Japan) suppressed the Boxer effort to expel them. From 1901 to 1937 (at which point new conquerors came) was a rare and happy time for foreigners in Peking, an era of special perquisites and a special freedom of opportunity, not least to participate in the fringe of Chinese life without being stuck in it. Like Mongol chieftains of the thirteenth century, when Polo saw Cambaluc, or Manchu captains of the seventeenth, when Father Schall headed the astronomical bureau, foreigners in Peking in the early 1900s had an untouchable status (newly known as extra-territoriality) and lived in their own cultural fashion, variously racing their ponies or worshipping their god. To their attentive Chinese servitors in household and office, cultural symbiosis was an old story. Any two Peking Chinese with a deadpan pun could bypass the comprehension of a foreign companion, whose effort to invade their culture through the language, though it showed commendable sincerity, could only put him at their mercy.

On this cultural frontier emerged the China pundit, who interpreted China to the Western public, and the Sinologue, whose literacy in Chinese (like that of the Chinese scholar-official class) gave him a distinct and hard-won dignity. The two roles were associated but not easily combined. The China views of G.E. Morrison, the Times’s own correspondent, were not inhibited by any knowledge of the language. J.O.P. Bland, who wrote many large popular volumes, had had only the elementary practical Chinese of a Customs apprenticeship. Both these pundits felt the usual need for Chinese documentation and got it at times from the Sinologue Edmund Trelawny Backhouse.

In retrospect we can see that Peking…

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