Monday, April 14, 2014

"The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China" Timothy Brook

Brook takes as his starting point two texts. First, stanza 80 from the Dao Der Jing:

Keep the kingdom small, its people few
Make sure they have no use for tools
That do the work of tens or hundreds.
Nor let the people travel far
And leave their homes and risk their lives.
Boat or cart, if kept at all, best not to ride;
Shield and blade best not to show.
Guide them back to early times
When knotted cords served for signs,
And they took relish in their food
And delight in their dress,
Secure in their dwellings,
Content in their customs.
Although a neighbor kingdom stood in view
And the barnyard cries of cocks and dogs
Echoed from village to village,
Their folk would never traffic to and fro
Never, to the last of their days.

trans: Moss Roberts

This was the favourite stanza from Lao Tzi of the first Ming Emperor Hongwu, and he built his new Ming dynasty following its percepts: a rural agrarian society composed of small villages with minimum contact between them, a population largely supine and uninterested in the wider world. The world the Hongwu  Emperor created out of this vision was pretty nasty: a 14th century version of Mao’s China, with utter uniformity in dress and food and culture, the strongest restrictions on movement of people and information – uncertified travel was punished by death –and increasingly heavy corvees on the people, in effect a totalitarian system avant la lettre.

The Ming dynasty was a Chinese Dynasty sandwiched between two foreign dynasties: the Mongol Yuan and the Manchurian Qing. It was appropriate that as its guiding ethos stood this quintessential Chinese text, motivating Hongwu and all his successors, even as the reality gradually slipped away from this vision, and the dynasty succumbed to weak rulers, strong eunuchs, and decadence.

The second text is the writings of the gazetteer Zhang Tao. Every county throughout Chinese history has had its gazetteers: newsletters of local events and news put together by the staff of the county magistrates based on reports sent in from the literati of the neighborhood. Brook has based his history of the Ming on a study of these local gazetteers. Zhang Tao was the compiler of a gazetteer from Sheh county just south of Nanjing who wrote at the beginning of the seventeenth century. What distinguishes Zhang Tao from other gazetteers is his literary ability. Brook uses an essay Zhang wrote on the ‘Seasons of the Ming’ for the 1609 gazetteer. In this essay, Zhang Tao looks back over the history of his dynasty and divides the dynasty into three seasons: winter, spring, summer. (Zhang Tao is writing in what he considers to be the autumn of the dynasty – he doesn’t know the end is coming, but he can sense it in the wind.)

Every family was self-sufficient, with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood, and gardens in which to grow vegetables. Taxes were collected without harassment and bandits did not appear. Marriages were arranged at the proper times, and the villages were secure. Women spun and wove and men tended the crops. Servants were obedient and hardworking, neighbors cordial and friendly.

Those who went out as merchants became numerous, and the ownership of land was no longer esteemed. As men matched wits using their assets, fortunes rose and fell unpredictably. The capable succeeded, the dull-witted were destroyed; the family to the west enriched itself while the family to the east was impoverished. The balance between the mighty and the lowly was lost as both competed for trifling amounts, each exploiting the other and everyone publicizing himself.

Those who enriched themselves through trade became the majority, and those who enriched themselves through agriculture were few. The rich became richer and the poor, poorer. Those who rose took over and those who fell were forced to flee. It was capital that brought power… trade proliferated and the tiniest scrap of profit was counted up. Corrupt magnates sowed disorder and wealthy shysters preyed…Purity was completely swept away.

One can see in Zhang Tao’s essay the gradual falling away from the ideal expressed in stanza 80 of the Dao Der Jing, from an agrarian society to one ruled by money and profit. Zhang Tao knows that the Hongwu Emperor would have been horrified at the state of the Empire towards the end of his dynasty had he but been able to see it.

Brook writes: I have ended up writing this history of the Ming dynasty in order to understand [Zhang Tao’s] history of the dynasty and why it made sense to him. This is the great strength of Brook’s book: a social and economic history focusing on the things that those people living though those times regarded as important. Brook covers everything: printing and publishing, silk production, travel and communications, the gradual growth of internal trade and merchanting, something the Chinese have always traditionally looked down on, the impact of the increasing demand for silver on the Ming economy and the surrounding nations, the structures of rule and control, taxation, corruption, the status of women, prostitution both male and female, food, clothes, the status and changing role of the literati and so on. Brook’s great strength is that he combines a long duree approach with the judicious inclusion of primary sources, including travellers tales, the gazetteers already mentioned, literary essays, poetry and excerpts from the huge compendia of knowledge that were popular during the last third of the dynasty. He goes over much familiar ground, to be sure, but he brings such interesting texts as supporting evidence, and it’s this that makes his book so good: the bringing to light of a whole world of Ming literary endeavor that is little known in the West, but which has so much to tell us about our own (end) times.

One man in a hundred is rich, while nine out of ten are impoverished. The poor cannot stand up to the rich, who, though few in number, are able to control the majority. The lord of silver rules heaven, and the god of copper cash reigns over the earth. Avarice is without limit, flesh injures bone, everything is for personal pleasure, and nothing can be let slip. In dealings with others, everything is recompensed down to the last hair. The demons of treachery stalk…

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

John Selden on marriage

Of all actions of a man's life, his marriage does least concern other people. Yet of all actions of our life it is most meddled with by other people.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Zhang Tao on the times

One man in a hundred is rich, while nine out of ten are impoverished. The poor cannot stand up to the rich who, though few in number, are able to control the majority. The lord of silver rules heaven and the god of copper cash reigns over the earth. Avarice is without limit, flesh injures bone, everything is for personal pleasure, and nothing can be let slip. In dealing with others, everything is recompensed down to the last hair. The demons of treachery stalk…

Late Ming 

Friday, March 28, 2014

'The City of Light' Jacob D'Ancona

Naturally, a manuscript

Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose

In 1990, renowned Jewish scholar David Selbourne is shown a manuscript that has lain hidden for seven centuries in a private collection. The manuscript is in medieval Italian and purports to be the first-hand account of a journey made by a Jewish merchant from the town of Ancona in Northern Italy to the city of Zaitun in China in the years 1270  to 1273.

The manuscript details the perilous journey made by Jacob and his fellow merchants by ship to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, then by camel caravan across the Syrian desert, then by ship again down the coast of Asia Minor, across the Indian Ocean, through the Java Straits and up the coast of Vietnam to the coastal city of Zaitun, modern day Quanzhou, in Fujian province. The travellers are beset by tempests, pirates, plague, boredom; they are feasted by relatives and business associates among the Jewish diaspora in every major port they call at; they conduct their business, selling and buying and exchanging goods for specie or gemstones that they sew into their clothes and keep secret. All through the voyage, Jacob maintains his Jewish observances, celebrating the Sabbath – which means not drinking water or disembarking on that day – studying his Torah and keeping to a kosher diet. 

Once arrived in Zaitun, the City of Light, Jacob becomes involved in the dispute currently raging in the city between two parties. The first is the party of merchants – the new and very rich middle class who are clamoring for a greater say in the city’s affairs and for a higher status generally; the second is the party of the traditional scholar elite, led by the elderly former prefect Pitaco, who decry the loss of traditional Confucian values and who are determined to put a stop to the encroachment of modernity and internationalism represented by the merchant party. During the debates, various themes are aired; including the role of education, the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity (Jacob indulges in some rather juicy rants against that man as he calls Christ and his followers), the best way to deal with the poor, the nature of duty, the best form of government and so on. One of the most interesting aspect of these central sections is the emphasis on a Jewish response to Chinese culture. Most medieval or pre-modern accounts of China are by Christian and usually Jesuit sources, and they interpret China through the lens of Christianity. It’s refreshing and important to have another light shed from a different direction. Jacob is a follower of Maimonides, and his speeches to the Chinese reflect that.

The debate between the two parties is given focus and urgency by the fact that the Mongols are every day coming nearer to the city to conquer it, as they have already conquered Northern China, and to bring Zaitun within the fold of their newly established Yuan Dynasty. We are in the last days of the Southern Sung, and there is a mood of impending doom and change. The argument between the two parties develops into full blown civil riot, and Jacob is compelled to flee the city precipitously in fear of his life.

Jacob gives us a detailed description of the city, its inhabitants and their way of life, especially the seedy underbelly of the city with its prostitutes, singsong boys and thieves. He describes the quality and enormous variety of the goods he buys and trades there, and although he is rather vague about the full extent and details of his profits, we understand that they are considerable. He is full of information about the Jewish trading diaspora, about the economics of long distance trade, about his travelling companions, about the perils of sea travel and trading patterns between Asia and Europe. The manuscript gives a fascinating account of a voyage not unsimilar to that made by Marco Polo at around the same time to Northern China, and reinforces many of the observations Polo makes about his sojourn in China. It adds considerably to our knowledge of Jewish trading practices in the thirteenth century, rounds out our knowledge of the Southern Sung, confirms many of the details given by Polo in his narrative, and is generally a fascinating and intriguing read.


Is it genuine? No one else except David Selbourne (and its mysterious owner) has seen the manuscript, for reasons Selbourne outlines in his first chapter, and its veracity has been called into question by several specialists on China, not least among them Jonathan Spence, who pointed out in a review in the New York Times in 1997 that Jacob’s manuscript could easily have been pieced together from various contemporary sources by someone who knows those sources intimately. Spence argues that the appearance of novelistic elements undermines the realism of the work as pure reportage. Other reviewers have suggested that the whole thing might be a very ingenuous post-modern novel, in the manner of say, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which also purports to be based on a newly discovered manuscript in medieval Italian. While Western sinologists, economic historians and historians of Jewish culture have pointed out inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the text, Chinese commentators, on the other hand, have been much more positive, praising the accuracy of the description contained within it of daily life in the Southern Sung.

Selbourne has responded to all these criticisms in detail in an afterword to the paperback edition. He has pointed out that the original document of Marco Polo’s travels has never been found (we only have copies of copies of copies) but very few doubt the authenticity of that account, so why doubt the authenticity of this manuscript, which has also not been seen by scholars? Selbourne refutes in detail many of the accusations of inaccuracy or anachronicity pointed out by reviewers and scholars, and wittily deflects the suggestion that it is a novel. But the question remains: if it’s not genuine, is Selbourne himself the author of the text, or is he the victim of a forger? The answer will never be known until an independent eye can also see Jacobo’s manuscript, and as Selbourne has repeatedly asserted that this will never happen due to circumstances beyond his control, the status of the text remains undecided.

There are times when the text reads as an authentic document, when it confirms or adds to what we know about European trade with China in the thirteenth century, specifically those sections of the text that describe the voyage out and home, and the descriptions of trading practices, and of the city of Zaitun. But there are others - especially the long central section in the debates between the two parties contending for control of the city - when it reads more as a novel, a Philippic, a Jeremiad, a satire in the style of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes.

In this debate, the long speeches given by the Confucian scholar Pitaco can be read in two ways: as an example of the standard kind of criticism Confucian scholars leveled against merchants – who throughout Chinese history have traditionally been regarded as scum- and also at the same time as an example of a cranky old man lamenting the sorry state of the modern world, you know, ‘the youth of today have no respect for their elders’, kind of thing. The speeches given by the merchants, on the other hand, sound like the typical justification for naked greed given by today’s neocon libertarians.

Here is Pitaco:

The world under heaven falls; princes grow feeble and the Tartars approach, but sage leaders do not appear. In the past, a man of noble feelings and wise counsel but poor in possessions was admired, but now others look upon him with contempt as if he had lost his way. For men and women now do as they please, thinking that even marriage is a curb upon their desires. Moreover, those without learning now feel no shame to make known their foolish judgments as though they were wise.

Isn’t this the kind of thing elitists and conservatives say nowadays, about the decline of values and the growth of stupidity?

Here is Ociuscien, a prominent merchant:

By his trading, the merchant creates riches for others as well as for himself. From these riches spring many benefits for the poor, while, from his getting, carrying and selling, like an ant, he sets an example to others of constant labour and gain. In addition, through his powers and those of his brother merchants, a means is gained not for the pillage of the city or for the destroying of its ways, but for the protection of the city from the tyrant who would seek to oppress its citizens with unjust tithes and dues….

Isn’t this a typical Randian, small government, tickledown view of economics?

There is the sense in reading these debates that Jacob is not just speaking of his own times, but also to ours; and indeed one perceptive critic noted that By coincidence, much of what Jacob d'Ancona dislikes in thirteenth century China is what David Selbourne dislikes in late-20th century Britain. However, if it is a novel, why would Selbourne persist in claiming that it is not, given that, if it is, it’s an astounding work of great complexity, profundity and originality. If it’s a forgery, on the other hand, what would motivate such a complex hoax, and who would hope to gain from it?

Either way, the City of Light is not only Zaitun, but more generally is the blazing commercial center of a London, a New York, or a Shanghai, all glitter and pleasure, but with a heart of darkness and barbarians mustering at the passes. Considered as genuine historical pronouncements, the debates exemplify the circularity of history, that there is nothing new under the sun; considered as fiction, the text articulate some of the tensions of our present moment of late stage global capitalism.


Crowds of men day and night run through the streets in the search of prey, while each fears the next, so great is the suspicion that one man has for the other. For this is the City of Light, which you, sires, have created, in which although the lanterns glitter in every place, there is only darkness inside men’s souls.

Monday, March 03, 2014

'The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci ' Jonathan D. Spence

The memory palace stands on its elevation, suffused in an even light. The reception hall is still silent, yet inside there is more for the mind to dwell on…

Jonathan Spence has made a name for himself as the author of books on various aspects of Chinese history which aspire to be more than informative works of scholarship or historiography, works which aim at the status of literature. He does this by eschewing a conventional exposition in which narrative is balanced by analysis, and looks for a more thematic, artistic, human approach. In this way he reveals new insights into the culture he is writing about, and has created a new kind of genre, one that sits between literature and history, and shares the best of both. It helps that Spence can also write really vividly.

Here he casts his eye on the story of Matteo Ricci’s interaction with the Ming Dynasty, using as his basis four images that Ricci described in his work on memory palaces, mental images that he designed in order to teach his Chinese listeners/readers how to design their own memory palaces; and four drawings that Ricci designed for inclusion in a book called The Ink Garden, published by one of his Chinese friends in 1606. The book alternates between a description of image and drawing, teasing out as much information as possible about the background of the image/drawing, and using it as a springboard to look at various aspects of Ricci’s life, work, and the interaction between two cultures.

In his analysis, for example, of the third picture from The Ink Garden, ‘The Men of Sodom’, Spence compares the Biblical passage which prompted the picture, and Ricci’s own verbal descriptor of the picture, drawing out the changes that Ricci made to the story that he believed would appeal to his audience, the suppressions of material that he felt would be beyond them – or inconvenient to explain, such as the incest between Lot and his daughters, and the inexplicably cruel death of Lot’s wife by salination. Spence also then compares the final version of the drawing Ricci made with another drawing Ricci used as a basis for his own, the engraving of Crispin de Pas which Ricci had with him, again, expanding on the changes Ricci made, and which he felt were necessary to get his message across to his audience.

This method of close readings supplemented with descriptions of the world of Ricci’s youth and the world of Ming Dynasty China recreates a wonderfully detailed and vibrant portrait of the world in the sixteenth century, both the outer world of externalities of shipping and horrible sea voyages, for example, and the inner world of mentalities and ideologies, a recreation that doesn’t only focus on Europe, but one that shows how Europe and China were slowly drawn together by the inexorable pull of trade, profit and the desire for exploration and conquest, both territorial and ideological. The book is not only interesting for students of Ming China, but also for students of Renaissance Europe.

Spence is fecund with his use of detail, and scrupulous with his judgments. He makes no comments on the dreadful lies that Ricci told about his religion; he voices no disapproval of the strong profit motive underlying the Jesuit mission to China (the Jesuits established their own trading cycles with Japan and India, reaping enormous profits, giving rise to the rumours among the Chinese that the Jesuits were alchemical wizards who had mastered the art of turning base metal into silver – the basis of Chinese currency-, for how else could they explain the seemingly endless inflow and outflow of specie into the Jesuit coffers?); he conveys no sense of outrage at how the Jesuits threw overboard any ‘unsuitable’ books they found their shipmates reading on the long, dangerous and very boring voyage out. Spence simply presents the facts and lets them speak for themselves, citing for example, a letter from a Chinese scholar to Ricci, suggesting that Ricci’s attacks on Buddhism are wrong headed, and politely requesting Ricci to actually read some of the Buddhist texts, and helpfully appending a list of relevant sutras, and then Ricci’s reply to him, with all its rudeness, self-importance and narrow-mindedness.

Ricci, in spite of his learning, linguistic gifts, scientific accomplishments and personal courage, considered as an embodiment of a culture that believed itself superior to China’s, comes across as arrogant, dull-minded, unscrupulously foxy, a people user, a bearer of a creed replete with blood and cruelty that is crude in comparison with the subtlety of Buddhism and the liberal minded-openness of Daoism. With each set-back the mission encounters, the reader rejoices that the spread of Christianity has been foiled or hindered in some way, and that its noisome nonsense has been minimized. And yet one can’t help but feel sorry for Ricci the man, or at least empathize with his experience as a despised foreigner in a culture vastly superior to his own, with his loneliness and isolation, with the hatred he encountered amongst ordinary Chinese – which even resulted in an attack on the Jesuit compound in Shaozhou by a howling angry mob – and by his efforts to learn the language.

Ricci’s guiding dream, his goal throughout all the long years of his life in China was eventually to effect a conversion of the Emperor Wanli to Christianity, a goal which shows at once his hubris and naivety, in imagining for one second that the Son of Heaven, the highest human embodiment of a culture much older and wiser than Ricci’s own, would stoop to listen to Ricci’s pablum about a virgin birth and worship of a man who died on an instrument of torture. When Ricci was finally admitted to the Presence, he met only an empty chair. The Wanli Emperor lived in total seclusion and never gave personal audiences, not to anybody, not even to the highest princes of his realm, and certainly not to a greasy, hairy, sweaty, long-nosed foreigner with overweening ambitions; and Ricci had to make obeisance to a piece of furniture, which is an image of an encounter between cultures that stays with you long after you read about it.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

'Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse' Part 2

Part 2: Decadence Mandchoue

What is the mark of every literary decadence? That life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole. This, however, is the simile of every style of decadence: every time there is an anarchy of atoms.
The Case of Wagner 7

I am writing in the somber close of that voluptuous day which it has been my pleasure to adumbrate, without the skill of a Bourget or a Barres, which allures the reader to pursue the same path (or to vary the metaphor) to sound the depths and shoals of exoteric passions…

Trevor-Roper tells us that the unpublished manuscripts were seen by two experts, who both pronounced it a work of literary genius. The historian then says that had they known about Backhouse’s career as a forger and swindler, they might not have given this assessment. Trevor-Roper even goes so far as to propose an alternative title to the work: “The Imaginary Sexual Life of E.T. Backhouse…”

By his own admission, then, Trevor-Roper falls prey to the biographical fallacy, which interprets a work solely in terms of what is known about the author’s life. Modern critical theory discounts this view, as we do here, especially when that view of the author’s life and milieu is hopelessly compromised by prejudice and ignorance, as we have seen. Trevor-Roper then claims that he assessed the manuscripts by testing them internally by their content. However, after the Hitler diaries fiasco, we now know that Trevor-Roper’s skills as a textual scholar were not as acute as he would have us think they were. Trevor-Roper seems to have been blinded by his own professional interests as a historian, and by the work’s subtitle: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, and by the fact that Dr Hoeppli had asked Backhouse to write his memoirs. But just because the good doctor had asked for memoirs does not mean that that is what Backhouse gave him.

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.

Decadence and the Decadents

I would fain hope that the Goncourt Freres, Baudelaire, Flaubert, even Gautier, would have found in my narratives a certain appeal (Bog Znayet - God knows,) not because of much literary skill in them inherent, but owing to l’accent de la verite de laquelle j’ose me flatter.
DM 14

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.

An outcrop of the Symbolist movement, the Decadents were a loosely collected group of writers and works who took their cue from Baudelaire, Poe, and De Quincey, and included some of the people Backhouse had known in his youth: Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Verlaine, Huysman, Pierre Loueys, and Aubrey Beardsly to name a few. Decadence reached a pitch of concentration in the fin de siècle- that is, the period covered by the narrative arc of Decadence Mandchoue-  but it didn’t start or end there. Decadent art can be found in all periods of Western history: the novels of Petronius and Apuleius are just as Decadent as the movies of Kenneth Anger.  It was the dominant artistic movement of Backhouse’s youth, and he was attracted to it by force of circumstance and friendship, and by temperament, as Decadence Mandchoue shows.

In what follows I will use ‘Decadent’ to denote the artistic movement or certain characteristics which conform to it, and ‘decadent’ to refer to decline in the real historical and social world.

Decadent art is characterized by the following elements: an obsession with artifice over nature; an obsession with the erotic; the movement of what is marginal to the centre and vice versa; an obsession with the darker side of life, a kind of nostalgie de la boue balanced by a surface sheen of glamour; inversion, both aesthetic, in which ugliness is made beautiful and the beautiful is made ugly, and moral, in which deviance becomes fascinating while what is conventionally correct is seen as banal; an obsession with the androgyne, the hermaphrodite, and the femme fatale; an obsession with the occult and heightened spiritual or emotional states; a taste for Rome, with its cannibalism, drag, and officially sanctioned sexual corruption of the young; a corroding use of irony; a breakdown in the barriers between what is accepted as ‘taste’ and what is not; an obsession with the exotic and an Orientalist perspective on it; a nostalgia for the past and a delight in decline; a preference for the ruined and a prevailing mood of mould; a delight in paradox; an obsession with obsession itself, perhaps, if the energy required for real obsession was not being constantly sapped by the enervating presence of ennui or the torpor induced by drugs; an interest in states of  (deliberately) altered consciousness and synesthesia; …

The text signals its Decadent antecedents in the very first paragraph of Chapter 1, which contains references to Decadent artists, both in the text and in Backhouse’s own footnotes, including Wilde, Robbie Ross, Huysmans, Verlaine, Anatole France and Swinburne. The narrator tells us that the impulse to put pen to paper comes not from unholy lust nor decadence raffinee, but so much as from instinctive curiosity and the spirit of Shakespeare’s sonnets (these last of course form the basis of another great Decadent work: Wilde’s Portrait of Mr. W.H., another text couched in the form of an oral confession.)

Chapter 14 begins with a long disquisition on the Decadents, in which the narrator specifically mentions the Decadent aesthetic of favoring artifice over nature and describes the mood of his own work in distinctly Decadent terms: I definitely have in my mind the tint of mouldiness; wherein the woodlouse thrives and multiplies. He quotes de Goncourt, la nature pour moi est ennemie, and gives a brief analysis of the difference in their attitude to nature between Flaubert, Baudelaire and Goncourt; he repeats once again his generic insistence that he is writing truth, but does so in the context of Flaubert’s disgust of nature, which is of course Decadent.

Resolutely apolitical, elitist and anti- democratic, Decadence emphasizes the primacy of individual experience over historical and social processes. All of these elements are characteristic of Decadence Mandchoue, as we will see. In what follows I will first look at how the text’s assertion of veracity is part of the Decadent aesthetic; then  we will see how this aesthetic informs the structure, language and imagery of the text.

Decadent Truth

Flaubert exists in petto in these my studies, rich, according to normal conception, in human depravity but owing nought to art, since they all happen to be true.
DM 14

The biggest obstacle to regarding Decadence Mandchoue as a successful work of art and not as a failed historical document, is, paradoxically, the text’s own claims that it is a true historical document.


The insistence on the veracity of the events revealed is simply an aesthetic gesture: it is not real truth, but artistic truth: this is not a memoir, but an imitation of a memoir. The insistence on truth in Backhouse’s China Memoirs should be understood as part of an artifice of verisimilitude, one that is a characteristic maneuvre of Decadent art, which favours the fictional autobiography and confession as a form: consider De Quincey’s Confessions; consider Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, consider Abbe Jules by Octave Mirbeau, consider Teleny, which has the form of an oral confession; consider Balzac’s Sarrasine with its nesting narratives. We are no more to take the text’s autobiographical form as real than we are to understand, say, Dostoevsky’s underground man’s notes as real. Backhouse’s China Memoirs are no more memoirs than The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr are really written by a cat. When Fanny Hill asserts in her Memoir that everything she says is the stark naked truth, we don’t take this literally because we know that this is a standard Decadent trope. The same goes for Backhouse’s China Memoirs. In fact, we can go one step further and say that the appearance of attempted veracity Backhouse gives his text is a species of hoax, one that Trevor-Roper swallows hook line and sinker because he reads it as a clumsily authentic but really spurious historical document, and not as the finely wrought work of Decadent art it really is.

Backhouse includes the use of his own name and experiences for the narrator and events of the text because he recognizes their potential for Decadent art, as we shall see. But the narrator is not Backhouse himself, but ‘Backhouse’, in the same way that Victor Segalen in Rene Leys is not the author Victor Segalen, but the character ‘Victor Segalen’. The text only appears to be the crazy visions of an exhausted Old China Hand, in which the boundary between imagination and memory, between fact and fantasy, is constantly dissolving. This appearance of rambling exhaustion is fully in keeping with the Decadent aesthetic, which values decline and nostalgia and digression.

I an old man
A dull head among windy spaces

 I… hereby positively affirm on my honour and on that of my respectable family…. That the studies which I have endeavoured to write for Dr Hoeppli contain nothing but the truth, the whole truth and the absolute truth.
Forward to the Reader DM

If we look again at the Forward to the Reader in more detail, Backhouse seems to be signaling this artificial nature of the work quite clearly.  We know that Backhouse absolutely detested his family, so his remark about his respectable family is to be understood as a sarcastic inversion of values centered on the word ‘respectable’, a piece of Victorian, Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy which Backhouse despised for obvious reasons, and which he transgresses and mocks in the text that follows. The last sentence of the Forward similarly is to be understood as a piece of sarcasm: Such an action i.e of fiction supplanting facts, would assuredly be despicable and indicative of no sense of honour whatsoever, rendering me unworthy of decent people’s society! That exclamation mark speaks volumes. We can imagine, from his rejection of the foreign community in Beijing, what Backhouse thought of ‘decent people’s society’. The whole ethos of Decadence is to reject what is ‘decent’.

Decadent Structure

In his study of Decadent writers and the Decadent aesthetic, Affirmations (1915) Havelock Ellis writes that one of the key characteristics of Decadence is that the whole is subordinated to the parts. He takes his cue here from Nietzsche, who in turn was paraphrasing Bourget, whom Backhouse mentions in the quote I gave at the beginning. 

Derek Sandhaus notes that there is some uncertainty as to the correct ordering of the chapters, which can be taken as isolated descriptions of events or scenes from the narrator’s life in Beijing. The text refuses an overall narrative arc, and at the same time thereby refuses the chronological development of an autobiographical narrative. Instead, what we have is a series of atomized vignettes, which could conceivably be read in any order. The narrator constantly refers to his work as ‘his studies’, or ‘this paper’, showing he that he thinks of it in terms of a multiplicity of collected smaller units rather than one big one. A quick glance at the chapter titles also signals the work’s Decadence, with the inclusion of standard Decadent terms and tropes: interlude, nocturne, vampire, cabinet secret, demons, eunuchs, temple, palace, hammam  and so on. While a sense of an overall design is refused, however, a close reading of any of the chapters reveals careful planning and patterning and a sense of a design within each chapter, a sense of each chapter as a discrete, atomic entity.

We’ve already seen how the Cagliosotro chapter takes key scenes from Cixi’s life and adds Decadent elements to them. A close reading of another chapter, The Fire From Heaven, Chapter 9 describes an incident in which two young lovers in a pavilion on an island in the lake in the Forbidden City are obliterated by a lightning bolt in flagrante delicto during a fierce storm. The gathering storm clouds, both real and metaphorical, are carefully built up during the narrative, which describes a pleasure jaunt across the lake in a barge with Cixi, Li Lien Ying, the narrator, and a beautiful young actor who is one of the doomed lovers, and who has just been pleasuring Cixi. Present also is one of the Empress Dowager’s chamber maids, who will be the other doomed lover, and a host of servants. As the storm builds, they discuss the Confucian belief that only bad people are struck by lightning, and then several antecedents are given. The most important of these is the erotic tale of the death by lightning of the Jiaqing Emperor, in the arms of his male lover. In this prefiguring narrative the Emperor and his favorite are reduced to a pile of white ash.

After the lightning strikes, there is a terrible fire in which the pavilion is burnt to the ground. As the storm recedes,  a lurid red sunset – the sunset of Decadence itself- illuminates the turbulent waters of the lake.  ‘Backhouse’ in a footnote describes the sinister illumination of the fire which was then still burning fiercely and the lurid rays of an angry sunset, like a lost soul that shall always suffer…and then describes how the lovers have also been reduced to a pile of white ash. The chapter is beautifully crafted, with all the details adding to the meaning of the whole, with a series of prefigurings and echoes, and a carefully built up mood. This is self- conscious techne, craft, art, not the mere ramblings of fond memory.

Decadence Mandchoue, then, consists of a series of exquisitely documented parts dissolving the whole, as Camille Paglia puts it in Art and Decadence.

Decadent Language

All style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene.
Susan Sontag
Notes on Camp

Backhouse’s prose is the linguistic equivalent of Des Essientes’s tortoise.
The great dilemma for Decadent literature is this: how can one truly achieve a Decadent aesthetic, how can one really get at or get to Decadence in language that is itself not corrupted by decadence? How can Decadence really be achieved by using language that is utterly colonized by the middle-class, democratic forces of the majority, the decent, the powerful, embodied in the two faced idol of usage and prescription. Doesn’t the very inertia of the language, long accustomed to a process of ‘normalization’, either under the heel of the censor or the compulsion of market forces, fatally undermine the very ethos of Decadence? What could a Decadent writer do to make language itself decadent? What would a truly Decadent/decadent language even look like?

Mallarme’s way out of this dilemma was to obliterate the norms of syntax and typesetting by scattering his words across the page in a kind of to-hell-with-the-expense gesture.

Oscar Wilde’s solution in Dorian Gray was to empurple the prose and create lists of fabulous objects and words, indeed making words fabulous objects.

Huysman’s was to compromise the poetic purity of his text by introducing an alien element of extreme objectivity of description, a fascination with taxonomy and chronology, and to include medical and scientific, Latin terminology, and words from obscure technical discourse fields.

Backhouse uses several methods to render his language Decadent. The first is to blend Wilde’s tumescent approach with Huysman’s scientific curiosity. In keeping with the Decadent parody of scientism, the narrator appears to believe that he is writing a paper for an academic conference: It is I think germane to the present paper… and includes footnotes by ‘Backhouse’.

His second approach is to infect an English text with other languages, especially dead languages such as Latin and Greek and Decadent languages such as French and Chinese (for a respectable, decent, Anglo-Saxon reader, nothing is more Decadent than French –pretentious, moi?). The Chinese adds salt to the characterisation of Cixi and the other Chinese personages: nearly everything they say is repeated three times, in English, Chinese characters, and Wade Giles. They speak in their own tongue directly, and as it is refracted (twice) through another tongue. Backhouse, in his use of Chinese, brings to the fore the artifice of the language and its (ortho)graphical system, emphasizing in many places the relationship between its extreme ornamental quality and how this effects its meaning: 

T’ung  does indeed mean ‘line’, and especially succession (as in Hsuan T’ung 宣統, succession to Hsuan Tsung宣統Tao Kuang 道光), but unfortunately the words for President, Tsung T’ung 總統  also contain this character where it means supreme chief. The same thought struck the Old Buddha who riveted her attention on the writing. “What T’ung does he (or she) mean?” p.217

The third way Backhouse renders his language Decadent is to create, hovering above the narrative, as it were, a multilingual discourse field of references to other texts, by means of direct quotation or stylistic echoes. Space and time precludes us here from looking in greater depth at these, but a cursory glance reveals that they point, for the most part, to the theme of a decline from a golden age, and come largely from other Decadent texts, both classical and ‘modern’.

What Mallarme, Wilde, Huysmans and Backhouse have in common is that they all create an artifice of language that foregrounds itself as Decadent:  the word becomes sovereign, as Nietzsche writes. However, where Backhouse goes further than either Wilde or Huysmans is first in the sheer range of his references, and second, in the bravura way he handles camp. For a Decadent aesthetics to extend to language, the language must also become decadent, and camp is one of the places  you end up when you make language decadent.  Sontag writes in her seminal essay Notes on Camp: Camp is art that proposes itself too seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’, a remark that seems designed to apply specifically to areas of Backhouse’s prose and project in Decadence Mandchoue. The fin de siecle Decadents were too early to discover the potential of camp for the Decadent aesthetic (although Wilde was moving in that direction in Salome), but Backhouse, writing in 1943, used it as a subtle parody of the Decadent voice, entirely in keeping with the Decadent aesthetic of parodying other discourses, but in this case, parodying Decadence itself:

“Now I am going to have my evening meal and an opium pipe: Good appetite and good digestion. You shall attend upon me at the hour of the Rat (11pm); don’t forget that I expect much better results than yesterday.”
“Oh, your Majesty, my tool was dry as your own rainless Gobi desert.”
“Well, we will investigate it on the spot. I will expound to you the twenty-two divers postures in the ‘Clouds and the Rain”, while you in your turn, discourse to me with your inimitable humour the subject of which you are master; I mean that puzzling vocabulary and nomenclature of your beloved homosexual and pederastic preoccupations.” DM 14

Decadent Imagery

Oh the Tired Hedonists, of course, It is a club to which I belong. We are supposed to wear faded roses in our button holes when we meet, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian…
Oscar Wilde
The Decay of Lying

‘The Cult of Domitian’ Wilde mentions in his parody stands more generally for the obsession with Imperial Rome and its decline, which formed a historical reference point for the Decadent movement of the fin de siecle. But Backhouse had no need of Imperial Rome to underpin his version of Decadence: he had his own decadent empire right to hand: China in the late Qing Dynasty.

China in the Decadent imagination was a site of mystery, magic and the all-important exotic. Chinoiserie in Decadent texts functions as a symbol of extreme artifice and aestheticism. Wilde’s 1886 poem Le Panneau describes a Chinese screen with a little ivory girl/Pulling the leaves of pink and pearl/with pale green nails of polished jade. Yeats’s 1938 late Decadent poem Lapis Lazuli uses Chinese imagery to establish a world of artificial beauty quite remote from everyday life. China was also a symbol of decadence, dissolution and depravity. The works of Pierre Loti had created a vogue for the decadent exotic, and in his book Les Derniers Jours De Peking, he had described the bird droppings on the sumptuous carpets in the golden throne rooms inside the Forbidden City. China allowed the Decadents to dream of their own personal empires, and even in some cases to create them, as Loti did, leaving Peking with cartloads of treasure looted from the Forbidden City, writing: I leave Peking tomorrow, and this will be the end of my little imperial dream… 

It was also the origin of opium, both as a material substance and as a cultural trope, a nexus involving visions and inspiration but also debilitation and decline. Gautier and Baudelaire both noted in their essays on opium how the drug induced a vague melancholy when the visions wore off. Opium of course features heavily in Decadence Mandchoue. In fact there are times when it reads as a kind of opium-induced tribute to the Orientalist visions of Gautier and De Quincey. Oscar Wilde, in a very revealing essay on Zhuangzi (unfortunately, the essay is wrongly anthologized as ‘Confucius’) saw the Daoist philosopher as a prototypical Decadent, someone who preached a paradoxical doctrine very similar to the Decadents’, of the immorality of consciously doing good, and the virtues of extreme idleness. Zhuangzi also appears in Wilde’s 1889 essay The Decay of Lying as a symbol of the man who does nothing useful, rather like Des Essientes himself, or an Eastern version of that great Russian sage Oblomov.

By the end of the 19th century, aside from the imagined Decadence in Western eyes, China was also deeply steeped in real decadence, with an overwheening, corrupt bureaucracy only interested in matters of protocol and face, putting up a determined resistance to the modern world. It had an ancient and archaic culture characterized by extreme artifice, ornamentation, and a populace stupefied by opium addiction. Desiree Nisard, one of the early theorists of Decadence in Europe, defined decadence in 1834 as a condition where verbal ingenuity has replaced moral vision, ornament replaced substance and false complexity replaced clarity of thought and language, a description that applies perfectly to late 19th century China, and to Decadence Mandchoue itself.

This view of China was not only held by the West, however. Chinese intellectuals of the early 20th century also regarded their culture and country as decadent. Liang Ji, a scholar of the Beijing opera, committed suicide out of despair at the irreversible decline of his country, declaring that the four cardinal virtues of Chinese culture: loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness, had been replaced by the four decadent virtues of eating, drinking, amusement, and pleasure.

China as a symbol of decadence, then, had a rich potential, and Backhouse saw this. With his unparalleled knowledge of the culture, the people and the languages, he saw that he was perfectly placed, by education, experience and inclination, to create a work in which Western Decadence could interact with Chinese decadence.

If one is looking for the moment when the Qing dynasty turned from greatness and began its inexorable decline towards decadence, it is the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor that springs to mind. After the pinnacle of greatness had been achieved in the reigns of the Three Great Emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, followed by a period of stablisation or stagnation during the reigns of Jiaqing and Daoguang, the rot really sets in during the reign of Xianfeng and accelerates inexorably thereafter, infecting irredeemably the reigns of the syphilitic Tongzhi, the doomed and tragic Guangxu, and the infant puppet Puyi. What links all these decadent Emperors together is the figure of Cixi, the Lady Yehonala, consort of Xienfeng, mother of Tongzhi, nemesis and enemy of Guangxu, and kingmaker on her deathbed of the infant Puyi. She is the thread running through all the later reigns and overseeing –causing? – the decline of the Qing. She is also Backhouse’s coherent nexus, the figure that links together all the chapters of Decadence Mandchoue and its central embodiment of Decadence.

Doubly exotic (a Celestial in a Western context, a Manchu in a Chinese context) she is also a woman, and powerfully rapacious one at that. This is why Backhouse writes about her in the way that he does, not because of his sick sexual fantasies, or to titillate his tired old age with memories of his youthful debauchery, as the text spuriously asserts, and as Trevor-Roper fell for, but because for Backhouse, seeking to unite Western and Eastern modes of Decadence within a literary work, she is, conveniently, a potent symbol of both decadence and Decadence. Presenting her though the lens of personal, erotic memoir is a merely a convention of the genre, as we have seen, so the question of whether Backhouse actually met her, and whether the various congresses he describes with her are based on fact or deluded fantasy therefore becomes irrelevant.

For a work of art that aims at Decadence, a more powerful and resonant symbol cannot be imagined. For what could possibly be more apt as an image of decadence, and as a Decadent image, than an aged Empress locked in sexual congress with a young homosexual, aristocratic foreigner? This symbol provides the focus of many kinds of deviance and inversion: in power relations, in gender and sexual relations, in age and cultural differences. It summons up feelings of disgust in the soul of the literal minded, and feelings of transgressive delight in the soul of the devotee of Decadence. Also, given the history of relations between China and Britain specifically, and the Western powers generally, from the Opium Wars of 1842 onwards, what image could be more compelling, more richly, historically ironic? Exactly who is being exploited when Cixi and the narrator perform their osculations on each other’s private parts?

The Decadent Erotic

Style is quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a respectful distance.
Oscar Wilde
The Decay of Lying

Critics have noted the connection between the Naturalism and Decadence, by noting how Decadent texts frequently include a kind of scientific or medical curiosity about depravity. The great taxonomies and histories of A rebours spring to mind here. Decadent writers like to include spurious academic references, couching their lurid descriptions of deviance in medical or scientific jargon. This has a twofold reason: an Aesopian use of language to get Decadent texts past censors, but also to infect such respectable scientific discourse with the spirit of Decadence itself, by incorporating (parodies of) realistic elements into a thoroughly imaginative text. Decadence Mandchoue employs the same strategy, as we have seen in the extract on the menu of the gay brothel quoted in part 1 of this essai.  Decadence Mandchoue everywhere shows an exhaustive interest in the naming of parts and positions involved in all kinds of sexual congress, in a number of different languages. It also includes lurid and fascinating quasi-scientific – medical, anthropological, sociological - information about eunuchs.

The erotic scenes hark back to the anonymous novel Teleny, Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves, John Bloxam’s story The Priest and the Acolyte and ‘Jack Saul’s’ autobiography Sins of the Cities of the Plain, the ‘artistic’ pornography of Jean Lorrain, and the exotic erotica of Pierre Louys and Pierre Loti: all notorious Decadent works. What distinguishes Decadence Mandchoue from these erotic works, however, is that it is not really erotic. The prose style, the constant code switching and quoting, is so artificial, so rococo, that it disallows an imaginative reconstruction in the mind that is truly arousing. The sex scenes all follow the same pattern and involve a lack of clear division between active and passive partners (unusual in real life, one hears, but very common in gay lit), and whipping. The same sequence of activities and elements are found for instance in Jack Saul and Teleny. This, then, is conventional, literary, genre sex, in which language and structure foreground themselves, not a description of real sex.

The androgynes, hermaphrodites and femmes fatale of Decadent art are transformed in Decadence Mandchoue. Cixi is of course the ultimate femme fatale: an Empress who has her previous lovers murdered. The anxiety that this will happen to the narrator surfaces in several places in the novel, and one of the ways he assuages this is by keeping Cixi amused by regaling her with stories of his gay life, in a Decadent reversal of Scheherazade’s situation. The clitoromegalous Cixi is also a symbol of the hermaphrodite, as is the homosexual narrator, who is sometimes passive and sometimes active in his relations with her, and with his male lovers. Cixi during her lifetime was regarded as the earthly incarnation of Guang Ying or Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva who appears sometimes in male guise, sometimes in female form. Her/His presence is ubiquitous all over Asia. Cixi, the great Decadent Queen, is a Chinese version of Balzac’s hermaphroditic character Seraphita, uniting the sensual and the occult within a Chinese, Taoist context rather than a Swedenborgian one.  The text abounds in descriptions of beautiful boys and eunuchs, the androgynes of Decadent art: Balzac’s castrato Sarrasine is reincarnated as any number of candidates: Li Lien Ying, for example.


Does the setting sun of decadence deserve our contempt and anathema for being less simple in tone than the rising sun of morning?
Theophile Gautier
Histoire du romantism

Ironically, because he didn’t mean it this way, Trevor-Roper was right to say that Decadence Mandchoue is not merely coloured by imagination in detail but pure fantasy throughout – and yet fantasy which was spun with extraordinary ingenuity around and between true facts accurately remembered or cunningly bent to sustain it. But is this not a description of any work of art? Is this is not how any artist works in consciously creating a work of fiction, especially historical fiction, which is what Decadence Mandchoue is?  Trevor-Roper’s inept misreading of the work is likely to stick to it, like guano on a monument. Sterling Seagrave, for example, who should know better as a long seasoned Old China Hand himself, calls Decadence Mandchoue the inflamed sexual fantasy of a mind completely unhinged and calls it lunatic graffiti, unthinkingly following Trevor-Roper, and making it clear that he had not actually read the work he is describing.

This might stand as a general response of those who are ultimately hostile or unsympathetic towards the Decadent aesthetic.

An important corrective here might be to look at how the Chinese language translation of the book has been received. In his introduction to the Chinese translation, the Taiwanese writer Luo Yijun praises the work’s artistic cohesion.
The Chinese dissident writer Bao Pu (editor of the banned Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang) praises Backhouse’s contributions to Western understanding of Chinese culture, - he is referring to Backhouse’s other two books- and also deplores Trevor-Roper’s hatchet job on Backhouse. A new generation of scholars in the field of East Asian studies from Pacific universities is also reassessing Backhouse’s life and career. 

A closer study of this work will reveal more secrets, for instance: the presence of Daoist ideas and patterns, the interaction between Backhouse’s European languages and use of Chinese, and a closer comparison of the work with Rene Leys and other Decadent and Modernist texts about China suggest themselves. Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that Earnshaw Books will produce the second volume Backhouse gave to Hoeppli.

Memory and imagination: the first counts as nothing without the second, which is verily the ode of the agnostic to immortality and gilds old age with the after- glow of youth. These dear phantoms of the past, if they cannot restore happiness to one who moveth in what is certainly not an ampler ether a diviner air, at least make life easier to be borne.
DM 8