His index entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is short and to the point…
Backhouse, Sir Edmund Trelawny, second baronet (1873–1944), Sinologist and fraudster
Born in 1873, the son of a banker, Edmund Trelawny Backhouse arrived in China in 1899. He soon hooked up with George Ernes Morrison, correspondent for the Times. First he worked as a translator – he knew Russian, Japanese and Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian – and later as a provider of insider information from the Chinese Imperial Court – him being a close friend of the Grand Councilor Wang Wen-shao, the Grand Eunuch Li Lien-ying, Viceroy Hsü Shih-ch’ang, Prime Minister Tuan Ch’i-jui, Finance Minister Liang Shih-i, etcetera.
The only problem being, of course, that he had no contacts whatsoever in court.
He was making things up.
In fact, Backhouse had come to China to escape his British creditors – if his biography shows one constant element, it is Backhouse’s penchant for dreaming up complicated financial schemes that usually backfired spectacularly.
Quite likely, the thick wad of letters of introduction – from the likes of the British Prime Minister, the Duke of Devonshire and the Colonial Secretary – that opened him so many doors in Peking, were forgeries.
Well-introduced and making the most of his linguistic skills, Backhouse set himself up as an interpreter, translator and business consultant in Peking.
His discreetly but widely publicized (and false) connections with the Manchu Court made him a much sought-after individual – but apparently not a single deal negotiated by Backhouse between the Manchus and Backhouse’s western clients ever came to a satisfying conclusion – not for his clients nor, often, for Backhouse himself.
Building a growing reputation as a Sinologist, Backhouse published two books – in 1910, China Under the Empress Dowager and in 1914 Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking. Both were co-authored by J.O.P. Bland, another renowned journalist that was availing himself of the well-connected interpreter and translator.
At the same time, Backhouse started a campaign to acquire a professorship in Oxford. His cunning plan consisted in collecting and donating to the Bodleian Library a number of rare ancient manuscripts – thus fueling a sense of gratitude in the university’s administrators.
Once again, the plan came to nothing: over an arch of ten years (between 1913 and 1923), the Bodleian acquired 17.000 manuscripts, for a total of eight tons, donated by Backhouse.
But the professorship never came.
What came was a post as Chair of Chinese in London College, in the ’20s.
Before that, with the beginning of the Great War, Backhouse got a post as a “confidential agent” (a spy) – handling arms deals between China and UK – a completely “virtual” deal in which thousand of German guns and machine guns, paid for by British money, were supposedly shipped up and down the Chinese coast and finally turned out to never have existed. The British money disappeared as well.
At the same time, Backhouse also devised two high-level scams against two companies – one British (contracted for the construction of six warships), the other American (that was to get the exclusive right to print Chinese money). Once again Backhouse claimed to work for the Chinese Imperial Court, once again the deals fizzed.
People started asking questions – but the simple idea that Edmund Backhouse could be a swindler and a fraud was considered preposterous.
And yet, as early as 1924 his 1910 book was exposed as a fraud – large chunks of the primary sources (including a rare diary from a Manchu scholar) were, quite probably, fakes cooked by Backhouse himself.
Of course it could not last – but again, it’s incredible it lasted so long.
In 1939, while holed up in the Austrian embassy to escape the increasing number of people questioning his credentials, his plans and his work, Backhouse wrote an autobiography. His racy stories of wild nights in Chinese dens of iniquity, often in the company of male lovers, had fired the imagination of the Austrian ambassador, and he insisted Backhouse put his memories to paper.
And Edmund Backhouse was happy to comply, describing his adventures and experiences in Chinese houses of ill-repute and other sordid establishments. He also claimed he had entertained sexual relations with – among others – Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, a Persian princess and the Empress Dowager Cixi (that Backhouse claimed to have… ehm, visited between 150 and 200 times… he was clearly keeping a record of his exploits.)
The manuscript was never submitted to a publisher, but the Austrian ambassador probably liked it.
Backhouse died in 1944, in Peking.
The manuscript of his autobiography resurfaced in 1973, when Hugh Trevor-Roper received it, found it pornographic and started a long quest for the truth about the old, well-respected sinologist. And the truth apparently was… Backhouse had been making things up all along.
It has been later suggested that at least some of the details in Backhouse’s autobiography might be based on first hand experiences, but the problem remains – we don’t know where facts end and fraudulent invention begins.
It must again underscored that such was the reputation of Backhouse as a scholar and a gentleman, that many of his scams and swindles were often dismissed, by the victims themselves, blaming the “unreliable Chinese authorities” for any “unexpected problem”.
Alsoworth mentioning is how Backhouse’s mostly made-up works on Chinese history and culture had a strong impact on the Western perception and interpretation of China. Basically, Edmund Trelawny Backhouse contributed building a vast, deep and completely false perception of a whole nation and its history.
And what of the thousands of books in the Bodleian Chinese collection?
Well, quite likely they were all forged by Backhouse himself. For sure, the remaining 58.000 books Backhouse had “recovered” from an undetermined “Palace Library” somewhere in Manchuria never reached Britain, and the Bodleian Library never got back the money it had shelled out for the shipment.