Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, 2nd Baronet 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. When reflecting on his childhood he wrote that "I was born of wealthy parents who had everything they wanted and were miserable...I heard not a kind word nor received a grudging dole of sympathy..."
Backhouse attended Winchester College and Merton College, Oxford. While 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.
In 1899 he arrived in Peking where he soon began collaborating with the influential Times correspondent Dr. George Ernest Morrison, translating works from Chinese to English, as Morrison could not read or speak Chinese. Backhouse fed Morrison what he said was insider information about the Manchu court, however there is no evidence of him having any significant ties with anyone of prominence. At this time he had already learned several languages, including Russian, Japanese and Chinese. 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 15th century] The Library describes the gift: The acquisition of the Backhouse collection, one of the finest and most generous gifts in the Library's history, between 1913 and 1922, greatly enriched the Bodleian's Chinese collections.
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. In 1939, the Austrian Embassy offered him refuge, and he made the acquaintance of the Swiss consul, Dr Richard Hoeppli, whom he impressed with tales of his sexual adventures and homosexual life in old Beijing. Hoeppli persuaded him to write his memoirs, which were consulted by Trevor-Roper, but not published until 2011 by Earnshaw Books.
Peking, during that period of World War II, was occupied by Imperial Japan, with whom Britain was at war from 1941. By then Backhouse's political views were fascist and he became a Japanese collaborator who wished fervently for an Axis victory which would destroy Great Britain. Backhouse died in the Hospital St Michel in Peking in 1944 aged 70, unmarried, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his nephew John Edmund Backhouse, son of Roger Backhouse. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1942 and was buried at Chala Catholic Cemetery near Pingzemen. Apparently regardless of his loyalties he was commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission among its list of British civilian war dead in China.
There are two major accusations. The first is that much of Backhouse's China Under the Empress Dowager was based on a supposed 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 diary was contested by scholars, notably Morrison, but defended by J. L. Duyvendak in 1924. Duyvendak studied the matter further and changed his mind in 1940. In 1991, Lo Hui-min published a definitive proof of its fraudulence.
Second, 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 especially 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", considered its claims, and eventually declared its contents to be figments of Backhouse's fertile imagination.
Robert Bickers, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, calls Backhouse a "fraudster", and declares that he "may indeed in his memoirs have been the chronicler of, for example, male brothel life in late-imperial Peking, and there may be many small truths in those manuscripts that fill out the picture of his life, but we know now that not a word he ever said or wrote can be trusted."
Derek Sandhaus, however, notes that Trevor-Roper did not consult specialists in Chinese affairs, and seems to have read only enough of the text to have been disgusted by its homosexuality. While conceding that Backhouse fabricated or imagined many of these assignations, Sandhaus finds that others are plausible or independently confirmed and he reasons that Backhouse spoke Chinese, Manchu, and Mongolian, the languages of the imperial household, and his account of the atmosphere and customs of the Empress Dowager's court may be more reliable than Trevor Roper allowed.
He was a gay Englishman who used connections to China's imperial palace in the late 1800s to enter the House of Chaste Pleasures, an exclusive male brothel in Peking. He also claimed he was the lover of the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi.
Edmund Backhouse was respected during his life as a Sinologist who wrote books that helped shape Western views of the Qing Dynasty. After arriving in Beijing in 1898, he worked as a translator and researcher for the Times of London. An exceptionally gifted linguist, Backhouse was fluent in English, French, Latin, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and several colloquial Chinese dialects. But it was his sexual activities - recounted in graphic, explicit detail- hat have made the publication of his story so controversial.
Strongly disagreeing with Trevor-Roper's assessment, Sandhaus said that "you can't say his stories are unreliable just because he was sometimes wrong or dishonest."