Sex and lies from the Qing court

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
edited by Derek Sandhaus
Earnshaw Books

Among the many preferences enjoyed by the empress dowager was a partiality towards eating at midnight. She ate little during the day, but attendants at the Qing dynasty's last court had to make sure that whatever had been prepared for her, it still had to be edible come the hour of the rat, in case she felt like a nibble.

Cixi could order your head chopped off if you displeased her, so it was probably a matter of life and death for those in her immediate circle to keep her happy. One of these, by his own account, was a minor British baronet called Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, a brilliant linguist and a homosexual who arrived in Beijing in 1898.

Backhouse's observations about the empress' eating habits are recounted in one of several spellbinding chapters of Decadence Mandchoue, written almost 60 years ago but published for the first time recently in circumstances as interesting as any of the tales it recounts. Her midnight snacking is one of many of the insights into the Empress Cixi we owe to Decadence Mandchoue. It may be one of this book's more frivolous observations, but no less interesting for that, because of the corroborative quality of such details, particularly in a history whose authenticity has been called into doubt.

According to the man who commissioned the book back in 1943, a Swiss doctor named Reinhard Hoeppli, the merit of the stories is not so much in the exactness of their detail, but in the quality of their telling. As Hoeppli writes in a postscript: 'There can be no doubt that nature had given Sir Edmund a prodigious memory but also an extraordinary power of imagination. This last made his stories particularly vivid and fascinating, but obviously represented to a certain extent a danger to their truthfulness.'

The advice about the empress dowager's eating habits was provided to Backhouse by a court official, chief eunuch Li Lienying, after Backhouse was summoned to meet her for a seduction, as described in a chapter titled 'Summer Palace Nocturne: The Pastimes of Messalina'. The empress desired to seduce him, he was told, and who would he be to refuse such an imperial command?

Summoned to a retreat outside Beijing, Backhouse was advised by the eunuch that the 'old ancestress will require the most contact: you must perfume whole person for the occasion. She has never seen a naked European of decent birth and will want to inspect you closely behind and before.' She also favoured a variety of sexual techniques, as listed by Backhouse using a vocabulary derived from at least three languages (English, French and Manchu) that will challenge the average reader.

When the Old Buddha, as she is also called, turns up for the preliminaries, she does so in style, arriving across a lake in a palace launch that also bears her daughter-in-law. Cixi was wearing a cream-coloured gown embroidered with swallowtail butterflies.

Backhouse also tells us that the empress had 'breasts which were those of a young married woman; her skin was exquisitely scented ... her whole body, small and shapely, was redolent with la joie de vivre; her shapely buttocks, pearly and large were presented to my admiring contemplation; I felt for her a real libidinous passion such as no woman has ever inspired in my pervert homosexual mind before nor since'.

At that time, Cixi was 69, writes Backhouse, and he was 33. Asked how old he thinks she is, Backhouse says he replied '30 to 35, your gracious majesty', which gets him rebuked for flattery, but that's not an offence that's going to cost him his head - rather he is commanded to show his genitals for her inspection and, then, enthusiastic approval and engagement.

The conversational foreplay preceding this interchange is at least as interesting as the love-making that follows it. (One reason why Decadence Mandchoue has been published more than 60 years after it was written is because only now is such frank and explicit description of sexual behaviour and anatomical detail able to find a publisher. Still, many of the details are unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper.)

A lot of the warm-up pillow talk involves Cixi taking a close interest in Queen Victoria's own sexual behaviour. Half the world away, the Qing empress is fully aware of the British monarch's liaison with a Scottish attendant, and assumes, that the relationship was carnal. The attendant in question, John Brown, even had a Chinese name - Po Leng - and the empress was also aware that she and the British monarch were, apparently, of the same height - four foot, 11 inches. 'Tell me,' she tells Backhouse, 'was Queen Victoria in love with her attendant Po Leng? I have seen a photograph of him carrying her in his arms across a stream near her Summer Resort (Balmoral) and he looks very handsome and very amorous.'

A few years later, Cixi was dead, murdered by her own nephew, according to a scene described by Backhouse, an excerpt of which was published in this newspaper two months ago. Her death at the hands of a relative was punted by the publishers (Earnshaw Books, Hong Kong) as a selling point, as it challenged the prevailing view that she had been poisoned. Apart from marking the end of the 350-year-old Qing dynasty, her death also cleared the way for the revolution of October 1911, whose consequences are being felt to this day.

Earnshaw's marketing may sell the book short, because its very existence is a tale in itself, as much as any recounted in the text. The book was written more than 30 years after the events it describes, after it was commissioned by Hoeppli, along with another, titled Dead Past, an account of Backhouse's youth in England. Both books were written within six months, with Backhouse at the age of 70 writing from memory only.

Hoeppli's rickshaw driver had identified Backhouse as a former lover of the empress dowager and Hoeppli then paid him to write his memoirs. Backhouse was already a historian of some note, having co-written with a correspondent for The Times the book China under the Empress Dowager. For years, this served as an influential account of the period, but it was later exposed as a fraud for incorporating a fictitious diary said to have been written by a Qing courtier.

The explicit sexual details of the two books he commissioned from Backhouse seems to have made Hoeppli blush and baulk, but he was also able to see their merits. Foreseeing a time in which the books could be published, Hoeppli entrusted the manuscripts to Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Unfortunately, they first fell into the hands of British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who would later be discredited after verifying the so-called Hitler diaries. Trevor-Roper seems to have been fired up into high indignation by the fraud of China under the Empress Dowager, and used these manuscripts to denounce Backhouse with such vehemence that they were never considered for publication. Trevor-Roper's book, published in the mid-1970s as the Hermit of Peking, became a bestseller and demolished Backhouse's chances of being taken seriously for the next 30 years. It is easy to imagine that Trevor-Roper's indignation, as this book's editor, Derek Sandhaus suggests in an excellent introduction, was at least in part a squeamish over-reaction to its unrelenting sexual detail.

The great achievement of Decadence Mandchoue, along with a bit of help from Hoeppli's wise and humane postscript, is the rehabilitation of Backhouse's reputation as a gifted intellectual, perhaps a bit weak on facts but brilliant in recounting a different kind of truth. It may have taken 60 years to see light of day, but mercifully, better this late than never.