Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet

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Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd baronet

Birthdate: (70)
Birthplace: Darlington, North Yorkshire, England
Death: January 8, 1944 (70)
China (Peking)
Immediate Family:

Son of Sir Jonathan Edmund Backhouse, 1st Baronet and Florence Salisbury-Trewlawny
Brother of Roland Charles Backhouse; Admiral Oliver Backhouse; Miles Rowland Charles Backhouse; Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Backhouse, GCB, GCVO, CMG and Harriet Jane Findlay

Occupation: sinologist, writer & fraudster
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet,_2nd_Baronet


Backhouse was born into a Quaker family in Darlington; his relatives included many churchmen and scholars. His youngest brother was Sir Roger Backhouse, who was First Sea Lord from 1938-39.

He attended Winchester College and Merton College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1894, and although he returned to the university in 1895, he never completed his degree, instead fleeing the country due to the massive debts he had accumulated.[2]

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 learned several languages, including Russian, Japanese and 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, who made use of his language skills and alleged connections to the Chinese imperial court for the negotiation of business deals. None of these deals was ever successful.

In 1910 he published a history, 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 professorship 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. Nevertheless, he donated over 17,000 items, some of which "were a real treasure", including half a dozen volumes of the rare Yongle Encyclopedia of the early 1400s.[3]

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.

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.

Backhouse's life was led in alternate periods of total reclusion and alienation from his Western origins, and work for Western companies and governments. He spent the last 18 years of his life alone in China and died in Beijing in 1944.

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

Trevor-Roper asserts that Backhouse was clinically sane, despite his fantasies.[4]

Accusations of forgery and fabrication

Backhouse's China Under the Empress Dowager was based substantially on the diary of the high court official Ching Shan (Pinyin: Jing Shan) which he claimed to have found in the house of its recently deceased author when he occupied it after the Boxer Uprising of 1900. The sources of his Chinese scholarship - including this diary - were often contested by scholars, notably Morrison. However they were never proved to be forgeries during his lifetime.

In 1973 the 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 acted opposite Sarah Bernhardt. Trevor-Roper described the diary as "pornographic," investigated its claims, and eventually declared its contents 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 fictions of his own making. However, they are not without value for scholars, for they give a detailed account of the life at the Empress Dowager's court as imagined by a contemporary who possessed competence in the Chinese language and lived in close association with the court.

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Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet's Timeline

October 20, 1873
Darlington, North Yorkshire, England
Age 7
England (Yorks, Richmond, Middleton Tyas, The Rookery)
Age 7
England (Yorks, Richmond, Middleton Tyas, The Rookery)
January 8, 1944
Age 70
China (Peking)