Sir Edmund Backhouse, 2nd Baronet

Sir Edmund Backhouse, 2nd Baronet

Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet (20 October 1873 – 8 January 1944) was a British oriental scholar, linguist and "black sheep" of the Backhouse family whose work was very influential for the Western view of the last decades of the Chinese Empire but is most remembered for having forged most of his alleged sources.


Backhouse was born into a Quaker family in Darlington; his relatives included many churchmen and scholars and he probably tried to rise to their stature. His youngest brother was Sir Roger Backhouse, First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy in 1938.He attended Winchester College and Merton College, Oxford, though not finishing his course at the latter when he fled from the UK in 1895 because of the huge debt he had accumulated.

In 1899 he arrived in Peking where he soon began collaborating with the influential "Times" correspondent Dr. George Ernest Morrison, aiding him with translation work. At this time he had already absorbed several foreign languages, including Russian, Japanese and increasingly Chinese. Later he became a professor of law and literature in the University of Peking. In 1918 he inherited the family baronetcy from his father, Sir Jonathan Backhouse, 1st Baronet. He spent most of the rest of his life in Peking, in the employment of various companies and individuals, providing to them either his language skills or alleged connections to the Chinese imperial court for the negotiation of business deals. None of these deals were ever successful.

In 1910 he published a history book "China Under the Empress Dowager" and in 1914 "Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking", both with British journalist J.O.P. Bland. With these books he established his reputation as an oriental scholar. In 1913, Backhouse began to donate a great many Chinese manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, hoping to receive a status of professor in return. This endeavour was ultimately unsuccessful. He delivered a total of eight tons of manuscripts to the Bodleian between 1913 and 1923. The provenance of several of the manuscripts was later cast into serious doubt.

In 1916 he presented himself as a representative of the Imperial Court and negotiated two fraudulent deals with the American Bank Note Company and John Brown & Company, a British shipbuilder. Neither company received any confirmation from the court. When they tried to contact Backhouse, he had left the country. After he returned to Peking in 1922, he refused to speak about the deals. He spent the last 18 years of his life alone in China, and died in Beijing towards the end of the Second World War.

He also worked as a secret agent for the British legation during the First World War, managing an arms deal between Chinese sources and the UK, which also brought forth no results at all.

He died unmarried and was succeeded in the Baronetcy by his nephew John Edmund Backhouse, son of Roger Backhouse.

Accusations of Plagiarism

Backhouse's work on Chinese history, and especially "China Under the Empress Dowager" with its core, the diary of the high court official Ching Shan (Pinyin: Jing Shan)--which he had allegedly found in the house of its recently deceased author when he occupied it after the Boxer rebellion of 1900--though often contested by scholars and notedly Dr. Morrison, was never actually discovered to be forged while he lived.

In fact, it was not exposed until 1973 when British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper received a manuscript of Backhouse's memoirs, in which he boasted of having had affairs with prominent people, including Lord Rosebery, Paul Verlaine, an Ottoman princess, Oscar Wilde, and even the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. Backhouse also had claimed to have visited Leo Tolstoy and played opposite Sarah Bernhardt. Trevor-Roper described the diary as "pornographic," investigated its claims, and eventually declared the exploits to be figments of Backhouse's fertile imagination.

Nowadays it is evident that most, if not all, of Backhouse's works--especially his "Chinese sources"--are fiction of his own making, he having misled the learned world for decades. They are still not completely without value for today's scholars, though, for they give a detailed account of the life at the Empress Dowager's court as imagined by a contemporary who possessed profound skills in Chinese and lived in close association with the court, although Backhouse never had the intimate knowledge of the court he claimed in his memoirs.

Backhouse's fascinating life was led alternately between total reclusion and alienation from his Western origins on the one hand and work for companies and governments on the other. He remained an enigma to his contemporaries and remains a fascinating subject whose life provides insights into a turbulent period of Chinese and colonial history.


He told "The Literary Digest": "My name is pronounced "back'us" (Charles Earle Funk, "What's the Name, Please?", Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.)


* Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper: "A Hidden Life - The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse" (Published in the USA as "Hermit of Peking, The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse") (1976)
* [ "Hugh Trevor Roper on Sir Edmund Backhouse"]
*Dictionary of National Biography article by Robert Bickers, ‘Backhouse, Sir Edmund Trelawny, second baronet (1873–1944)’ 2004 [] , accessed 4 Jan 2007.

External links

* [ "China under the Empress Dowager: Being the History of the Life and Times of Tzu Hsi", by J. O. P. Bland and E. Backhouse]

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