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Derek Sandhaus on Legendary Expat Edmund Backhouse

Derek Sandhaus

Tomorrow at 7:30 pm, author/editor Derek Sandhaus will be here to discuss the controversial memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, an English sinologist who found himself documenting the rampant corruption, grand conspiracies, and uninhibited sex inside Empress Dowager Tz’u Hsi’s court at the turn of the 20th century. Sandhaus is the editor of an abridged version of Backhouse’s most famous book, Decadence Mandchoue, renamed Manchu Decadence, which focuses on the most extraordinary and valuable elements of Backhouse’s narrative.

We caught up with Derek recently to ask him about Backhouse, and also a bit about baijiu, since Derek is the author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.

How did you become interested with Edmund Backhouse?

Edmund Backhouse first caught my attention while I was working on my first book, Tales of Old Peking. He was one of those enigmatic personalities who keeps popping up in various discussions of Chinese history, and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography Hermit of Peking made him notorious. His story, of an English aristocrat who “went native” in the height of British imperialism and became perhaps the foremost Qing historian/con-artist of his day was immediately fascinating. Not long thereafter, I wrote the introduction to Earnshaw Book’s re-release of China under the Empress Dowager, which Backhouse co-wrote with J.O.P. Bland (and possibly partially fabricated). It was around this time that I began the complicated process of editing Décadence Mandchoue for Earnshaw Books, which I only managed through the assistance of several translators and the kindness of several academics.

What are the main differences between Backhouse’s memoir and this abridged version?

When we published Décadence Mandchoue in 2011 we thought, given the controversy that surrounds the work, it was important to put forward an edition that was as close to Backhouse’s original vision as possible, but also contained enough editorialization to render the work understandable to contemporary readers. In this way readers could assess the work on its merits and draw their own conclusions. We recognized at the time that Backhouse was prone to long-winded digressions and a style that can charitably be called pedantic. With his earlier work he had relied heavily on talented editors to keep him on track (most famously George Morrison and J.O.P. Bland), but his memoirs lacked the guidance of a professional (it was compiled by his physician, the Swiss Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli). So this edition, which I put together at roughly the same time as Décadence Mandchoue, was fully translated into English and condensed to highlight the primary narrative. We gave it the full edit it deserved and in the end it is about 25 percent shorter than the original. It still contains all the essential elements of the story, yet it avoids some of the more tiresome rambles.

What’s your favorite Backhouse story?

My favorite has always been the story of how Reinhard Hoeppli first encountered Sir Edmund. According to Hoeppli, whose honesty has never been questioned, it happened while he was taking a rickshaw through Peking. He spotted Backhouse in his typical costume, a long flowing Chinese gown with an equally long beard to match, and the sight caused his rickshaw driver, an older Manchu, to ask: “Do you know who that was?” When Hoeppli told him he did not, the driver replied that the man they had passed was once the foreign lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi. What I love about that anecdote is that it reinforces the central mythology surrounding Backhouse. On the one hand you have the seemingly preposterous claim that Backhouse, a homosexual foreigner, found his way into the bedchamber of the most powerful woman in China. At the same time you have just enough anecdotal support to make you wonder whether it was true.

Did Edmund Backhouse like baijiu? Let’s speculate a little: which baijiu would fit his personality?

Sir Edmund would have naturally detested baijiu, as it was a drink for peasants during the Qing Dynasty and Backhouse was nothing if not a snob. He might prefer instead an elegant huangjiu, the drink of poets. I am personally inclined to believe, both from his writings and his milieu, that he would prefer the favored drinks of court and the rich patrons of the Peking opera: champagne and brandy.

Derek Sandhaus will give a book talk of Decadence Manchu on Thursday, September 3 at 7:30 pm at The Bookworm. Tickets are 50 RMB (40 RMB for members).


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