Racy memoirs gives new insight into Qing court

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am


Wednesday will see the launch in Hong Kong, 68 years after it was written, of one of the most remarkable books by a foreigner about China - in which the author details his sexual exploits with a string of partners, including the Empress Dowager.

Decadence Mandchoue - the China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse is published in English and Chinese, and will be launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Central.

'There is much to be learned from these memoirs,' wrote Derek Sandhaus, editor of the English version, published by Earnshaw Books. 'Backhouse's worth as a historical source can perhaps be compared to Marco Polo's.

'He may, like Polo, have overstated his personal importance or placed himself in situations where he was not present when creating his historical record of China. But such a chronicle still has worth in contextualising late imperial China and examining as enigmatic a personality as [the dowager]. Decadence Mandchoue is, by any measure, a remarkable book.'

Born into a noble family in England in 1873, Backhouse moved to Beijing in 1898 and spent most of the rest of his life there until his death in 1944.

He wrote the memoirs in the first half of 1943, but the explicitly sexual nature of about a third of the book meant that it was never published.

In 1976, the book was shown to eminent historian Hugh Trevor- Roper, who described Backhouse's life story as a fraud. Trevor-Roper's judgment discredited Backhouse in the eyes of scholars. But Earnshaw Books and its Chinese publisher, New Century Press, believe it has literary and historical value.

'This is a eulogy for the Qing dynasty, an erotic love letter to a bygone era,' Sandhaus said. 'Trevor-Roper's assessment of Backhouse appears in many ways mean-spirited and narrow-minded ... I have aimed ... to show that a different conclusion can be drawn.'

Readers who buy a copy must put on a safety belt and fasten it tightly to ensure that Backhouse's vivid and graphic prose does not draw them out of their comfort zone.