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The Confidence Man

Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse

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

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 must always have produced foreign Sinologues who studied Chinese writings and foreign pundits who explained China to their fellow tribesmen. A vigorous pundit like Morrison might even become the obverse of pundit, a foreign adviser who explained the invaders’ curious ways to the local Chinese. All these people skated on the thin ice between the two cultures. Sometimes they were seduced by their countrymen’s gullible will-to-believe (“China is a sheet of sand, unorganizable”); for cultural differences are rationally unaccountable and may seem by turns menacing or entrancing (Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan). Only a Sinologue of strong character could withstand the temptation to exploit his countrymen’s willful credulity concerning “the Chinese.” In fact Chinese ways were both sophisticated and secretive. The predictive capacity of China pundits was no greater then than now, and their failures to unscrew the inscrutable often had to be masked by the usual flow of irrelevant circumstantial detail which was the Sinologue’s stock in trade. The wildest gossip at the Peking Club was simple truth compared with what one could get in Chinese circles in the West City once one had the entrée.

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.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, has exhumed Backhouse’s career as one of the great literary forgers. 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 £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! Yet even when fantasy ran wild, circumstantial details accompanied it.

Hermit of Peking is a fascinating book not only for its bizarre revelations but also because it is constructed like a detective story. Mr. Trevor-Roper is a deft narrator, he takes the reader along with him, and stranger events lie always around the corner. In the end he judges Backhouse’s personality with all its fantasies as “complete, coherent and sane.” The success in beguiling others came from “personal charm…transparent honesty…apparent realism…practical toughness” and the “extraordinary circumstantiality” and “minute and scrupulous detail” of his concoctions, together with methods of operation that required a patron, enjoined secrecy, and left him the only reporter of his doings.

As to motivation we can only speculate. Mr. Trevor-Roper sees him as a snob, rebelling against a Quaker middle-class background, led on by “the ‘aestheticism,’ the febrile eroticism, the aggressive, insolent deviation of the 1890s.” With this “empty” and “supercilious elitism,” he turned against his own origins and escaped to China, eventually winding up in the direction of fascism. Professor Jonathan Spence’s review of the English edition, A Hidden Life (Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 1976), offers further evidence, including an unnoticed baby brother, born a year later than Edmund, who died at the age of three and was commemorated in the names of the twin boys that were born next, the favored and successful ones. In the opening paragraphs above I have tried to suggest how the Peking milieu could have fostered a young bounder’s proclivities—being bilingual could quickly lead him into a culturally ambiguous double life.

The Backhouse story will keep on growing in interest. Mr. Spence comments on the light that Backhouse’s schemes cast on Western imperialism—the naïveté, ignorance, and “casual stupidity” of national governments and business corporations. Hermit of Peking opens doors into many questions. The Chinese side is plainly still under-researched. As Trevor-Roper notes, the liberties Backhouse took with documents in Annals and Memoirs moved Kenneth Scott Latourette to critical comments in his survey, The Chinese. Bland’s threat of a libel suit led Macmillan in Latourette’s absence to insert “an apologetic erratum slip.” (One is reminded of the same firm’s suppression of Ross Koen’s The China Lobby after printing it in the 1950s.) The whole Bland and Backhouse contribution to history needs critical reappraisal and a new synthesis.

Sinological research is called for on many topics, for example, Backhouse’s alleged appointment in 1901 to teach literature and law part time at the University of Peking, a post he held “for ten years,” “resigning” from it in December 1913. Was this real? Or has the persuasive Backhouse on this point ensnared the investigator who has cut through so many other webs and tissues of his fantasy? Is it likely that Backhouse ever lectured?

Sinology is of course the natural habitat of nit-pickers. “Mr. Yu Chuanpu” sounds suspiciously like “Mr. Ministry of Posts and Communications,” evidently a garble by Lord ffrench. Again, though the Ching-shan diary was said to be “in a very difficult ‘grass-hand,”’ the part of it shown in facsimile is more like the easier correspondence style (hsing-shu, not ts’aotzu). How far was Backhouse, even in his memoirs, simply drawing on the extensive Chinese scatological literature on the late Ch’ing court? How far on live informants? Had he any contact with Jung-lu’s family?

While Mr. Trevor-Roper has described his sources rather fully in general terms and supplies a list of some seventy-five “source notes” for various pages, his account is mercifully not footnoted in PhD style and avid readers will no doubt be after him for further guidance. A whole Backhouse industry may develop. In fact, controversy has already started.

Mr. Trevor-Roper got onto the Backhouse story when he was given the two volumes of memoirs at Basel airport in 1973 to examine and deposit in the Bodleian. The Swiss representative who had befriended Backhouse in wartime and commissioned him to do his memoirs was Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli, who had been a leading parasitologist at the Peking Union Medical College in the 1930s. (My wife Wilma edited some articles for him there in 1933.) Before his death in 1973 he had prepared the memoirs for publication and had written a postscript of his own to appraise their value and record his contact with the author. In six issues of the TLS (November to January), Mr. Richard Ellmann of New College has written thrice “In defence of Dr. Hoeppli” and been answered thrice by Mr. Trevor-Roper of Oriel, on the issue of how far Hoeppli was taken in by Backhouse (he was). Both writers cite Hoeppli’s postscript in the Bodleian that is unavailable to their readers, and mince no words. This kind of exchange is evidently the modern substitute for a duel. If words could wound, both would be in hospital, Mr. Ellmann on the danger list. There is every indication that Sir Edmund will live in history.

Letters

Defending Dr. Hoeppli September 15, 1977

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