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Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of…

Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse

by Edmund Trelawny Backhouse

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The China Memoirs consist of 19 chapters – their ordering is uncertain - covering a narrative arc that extends from 1899 to 1908, with flashbacks right back to the early part of Empress Dowager Cixi’s life, and a final chapter set in 1928. Backhouse details his experiences in the gay brothels and bathhouses of Beijing. He details his nuits d’amour and love affairs with actors and sing-song boys in graphic detail. He claims to have been the lover of several prominent Princes of the Manchu dynasty, to have enjoyed relations intime with many of the eunuchs of the court, including the chief eunuch Li Lien Ying. Most controversially, however, he claims to have been the secret lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi –despite his homosexuality and her advanced age- and gives an intimate portrait of the Old Buddha, as she was called, and her circle, with detailed descriptions of orgies in the Forbidden Palace. We learn for example, that Cixi was endowed with an abnormally large clitoris, which she liked to stimulate by placing in Sir Edmund’s anal crease, simulating penetration. Perhaps too much information. But Backhouse holds nothing back.

The prose is a repository of languages, an artifice of code-switching between English, French, Chinese, including ideograms and Wade Giles Romanization, Latin, Greek, some Italian, some German, some Russian; embedded within it are quotations from Horace, Virgil, Lucretius, Confucius, Mencius, Chuangtzu, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Book of Changes, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Buddhist sutras, and references to classical and modern European and Chinese history….

Read part 1 of this review on The Lectern

Modern critical theory asserts that a work should be judged on its own merits as a discrete, autonomous entity; or at least by situating it within a genre and looking at its relationship with other works from the genre; and that it should not be judged by how it does or does not fulfill an authorial intention – a risky concept in theoretical terms- or by how it does or does not correspond to a real truth – another risky theoretical concept.

I will argue that Decadence Mandchoue is to be regarded in its entirety as a successful work of self-conscious, deliberate literary fiction – a novel - and not as a failed work of history or autobiography. I suggest that presented with an opportunity- and a reader- by Dr Hoeppli’s kind offer, Backhouse set out to put to paper a work he had long planned in outline and detail in his mind, a work that would bring to life and preserve the artistic movement of his youth…

Backhouse’s achievement is best brought out by focusing on the first part of the title he gave his work: Decadence Mandchoue. Although it was written in 1943, the work’s whole style and atmosphere is of the 1890s, of The Yellow Book, of the Symbolists, and in particular, the Decadents. In fact, as we will see, Decadence Mandchoue has a strong claim to be regarded as one of the great Decadent masterpieces, along with Huysman’s A Rebours and Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

Read part 2 of this review on The Lectern ( )
15 vote tomcatMurr | Feb 6, 2014 |
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The measureless waste of waters encompasseth them, but the merciful Raft of AVALOKITESVARA ever waiteth Ready to rescue the drowning, even midst of the sea.
Sanskrit proverb
Every sin, except the sin against itself, Love shall forgive: All lives, save loveless lives, True Love shall pardon.
Oscar Wilde
To Kuei Hua, my own Casia Flower
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