mercredi 13 avril 2011

Edmund Backhouse et René Leys

Edmund Backhouse
Deux articles parus dans le South China Morning Post, et transmis par Sebastian Veg (Fictions du pouvoir chinois. Littérature, modernisme et démocratie au début du XXe siècle. Paris: Éditions de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales Press, 2008) proposent sinon un lien avéré du moins une singulière coïncidence entre le destin d'Edmund Backhouse, résident britannique à Pékin dans les premières années du XXe siècle et le personnage de René Leys, dont le modèle reconnu est Maurice Roy, de quoi brouiller encore davantage les pistes de ce roman à énigmes. 
Je vous livre le texte (en anglais) des deux articles de Mark O'Neill, publié dans l'édition du dimanche 3 avril 2011 :

  • A language master who avoided contact with Westerners

Sir Edmund Backhouse was born on October 20, 1873, in Richmond, Yorkshire, into a noble Quaker family. He studied at Winchester and Merton College, Oxford.
He failed to graduate but had a rare gift for languages, which enabled him to master French, Latin, Russian, Greek and Japanese.
He arrived in Beijing in 1898 and soon mastered Mandarin. Within a year, he was working as an interpreter for the British Foreign Service. George Morrison, a correspondent for The Times, said that no one approached him in the ease with which he could translate Chinese. He was to spend nearly all of the rest of his life in Beijing.
In 1903, the Chinese government appointed him professor of law and literature at the Imperial Capital University, which later became Peking University. He also learnt Mongolian and Manchu.
In 1910, together with another Times correspondent, John Bland, he published China Under The Empress Dowager, which gave the public the first comprehensive look at the most powerful ruler of the final Qing period (1644-1911) with an extraordinary amount of detail. It was an international best-seller.
In 1918, he inherited the family baronetcy from his father and became the second baronet.
He was different to the other foreign residents in many ways other than his prodigious language ability.
He lived far from the safety of the Foreign Legation Quarter, in a house in a Chinese district, adopting Chinese dress and customs.
He went out of his way to avoid contact with Westerners, sending servants ahead to ensure there were none there. He would cover his face when passing foreigners in a rickshaw.
One major reason for this was his open homosexuality, acceptable in Chinese society but not among the foreigners.
'Sir Edmund felt somewhat a stranger in his family and among the members of the British aristocracy of his time,' wrote Reinhard Hoeppli, a Swiss doctor and honorary consul.
'His wish to leave the uncongenial British atmosphere was very likely one of the reasons why he went to China, where he found just the milieu he was looking for and which corresponded to his interests and tastes.'
To earn a living, he worked for Western governments and companies.
Over the years, he donated 30,000 Chinese books and manuscripts to the Bodleian library of Oxford University. In 1940, after the Japanese occupied Beijing, he moved back into the legation quarter and lived in a single room in the British embassy compound.
Because of his age and failing health, he was exempted from going to a camp where the Japanese interred other citizens from Allied nations. It was while he was in the embassy that he made Hoeppli's acquaintance.
In the first half of 1943, he wrote Decadence Mandchoue and another autobiographical work Dead Past. In April 1943, he entered the French St Michael's Hospital, where he remained until his death on January 8, 1944.
He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside Beijing, close to the graves of some of the famous Jesuits from the era of the Emperor Kang Xi (1661-1722).
New Century Press publisher Bao Pu said Backhouse wrote the two books from memory without resorting to notes or outside sources.
'It was extraordinary how he could remember so many names and places and quote classic texts at length, in Chinese, French and Latin, as well as English. It shows that he had an exceptional memory.'

Decadence mandchoue, les mémoires de Backhouse
publiés récemment à Hongkong

  • Murders at the Qing court

It was the morning of November 15, 1908 in a reception room of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The Empress Dowager was meeting two senior officials, one of them a senior military officer, Yuan Shikai .
The two asked her to abdicate and appoint them as regents to the young emperor. Incandescent with rage, she ordered the two to be dismissed, tried and executed for treason. Yuan took out a six-chambered revolver and shot her three times in the stomach. As she bled profusely, she called for the two men to be beheaded and breathed her last. The eunuchs around her screamed their grief.
This remarkable account of the death of the most powerful person in the empire comes from a book, Decadence Mandchoue - the China memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, to be published in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Born into a noble family in England in 1873, Backhouse moved to Beijing in 1898 and spent most of the rest of his life there, until his death in 1944. He wrote the memoir in the first half of 1943, at the suggestion of a Swiss doctor, Reinhard Hoeppli; the doctor had it typed out and gave one copy each to four libraries - the Bodleian in Oxford, the British Museum, Harvard College and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Backhouse asked that it be published after the death of Hoeppli, which was in 1973.
The memoirs have never been published. They were shown to an eminent Oxford University historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who chose not to publish them but instead to write Backhouse's biography, in 1976. He described Backhouse's life story and virtually all of his scholarship as a fraud. In 1983, however, Trevor-Roper's sense of judgment was put into question when he authenticated diaries by Adolf Hitler, later found to be forgeries.
Trevor-Roper's judgment discredited Backhouse in the eyes of scholars but Earnshaw Books and New Century Press have chosen to publish them, in English and Chinese respectively, believing that, even if they are not completely accurate, they contain valuable and unique historical material. Bao Pu, publisher of New Century Press, said: 'It is time for a wider audience to make their own decision about the value of this material.
'Backhouse had an extraordinary talent for languages and the best Chinese I have ever seen of anyone learning it as a foreign tongue,' he said. 'He had a mastery of the Beijing dialect which people from Shanghai and Guangzhou would not even be able to appreciate fully. He gives us texture and details of a life in Beijing and the imperial court at the end of the Qing dynasty that is forever lost.
'There will be enormous interest among Chinese in this book. No Chinese would have written it in the way that Backhouse did. Only a foreigner in his situation would make note of the details of everyday life that the Chinese themselves would have taken for granted,' he said.
In the appendix, Hoeppli says that the memoirs were 'fundamentally based on facts', even though age and confused memory may have led to some mistakes. 'Sir Edmund firmly believed he was stating the truth.'
It is undisputed that, due to his linguistic skills, education and connections to Beijing's diplomatic and journalist community, Backhouse had an access to the Qing court during its final 12 years that was unique among foreigners
Publishers on the mainland were eager to publish the book but would have had to remove a substantial amount of the content because of its explicitly sexual nature. Earnshaw Books wanted it to be published in its entirety.
'His accounts of the death of Emperor Guang Xu and the Empress Dowager the next day is the only unique alternative we have to the official version that offers such a detailed scenario,' Bao said.
Guang Xu died on November 14, 1908, one day before the Dowager Empress, at the age of 37, 10 years after she had removed him from power because she opposed his attempts at reform.
Official court documents and doctors' records at the time said that he died from natural causes after having been in poor health. In 2008, the government conducted an investigation on the 100th anniversary of his death. It conducted an autopsy on his corpse and found lethal levels of arsenic.
In Backhouse's account, the Dowager Empress sent a eunuch and a court attendant armed with revolvers, with a servant carrying stuffed pillows and cushions, with orders to kill him. They arrived at his room at 11pm and paid the sentries on duty 50 taels of silver each.
The two ordered the emperor to kneel to receive a decree from the Dowager Empress. His eunuch moved to shield him and was shot dead. The two then said that they had orders to take his life. They pushed him down on the bed, partially strangled him with a rope and then suffocated him slowly with pillows. When she heard, the Empress Dowager was delighted at the news. 'She was beaming with satisfaction and in the highest spirits.'
In Backhouse's version, palace eunuchs had bought arsenic from a Beijing drug store and put small doses in the sponge cakes which the emperor liked to eat. But the British legation asked to send a physician to examine him, a request which the dowager could not refuse; so she ordered his death by a quicker method.
As for the dowager, the official version is that she died of diarrhoea, aged 73. 'But she was in very good health,' Bao said.
Backhouse describes the woman who ruled China for nearly 50 years as a person who ordered the murder of people without a second thought in pursuit of power, a character similar to that of Lady Macbeth, with contempt for human life.
Her victims included political rivals, those whose policies she opposed and enemies within the palace, including the favourite concubine of her son and Emperor Tongzhi. In 1900, she had two eunuchs throw the woman down a well in the palace, after she had insulted her.
'At first sight, the Old Buddha (one of her names) gave the impression of a dear, good-natured, elderly lady ... now and then her expression changed as she alluded to some person or some incident which had caused umbrage, those eyes which could fascinate and terrify ... it was the basilisk glance before which China's greatest men had quailed, even her nearest and dearest Junglu himself.' Junglu was the grand secretary, the second most powerful person in the empire.
She ate light, slept badly, had an opium pipe night cap and liked her attendants to stay in her bedroom until she fell asleep.
'Whatever her incomparable charm, she could not have succeeded without unrivalled statecraft and the consummate flair which enabled her to catch the passing breeze and turn it to her purposes,' Backhouse said.
He said that the dowager had many lovers, of whom he was one. 'In certain respects, the Old Buddha was a disciple of Sade, although in others she was tender-hearted and pitiful.'
Chinese historians have described the dowager as sexually active; she may have taken foreign lovers for their novelty value. But many do not believe that a Chinese empress in her 60s would have taken as her lover a European in his 30s, and one who was openly homosexual.
The memoirs open with Backhouse's arrival in a male brothel, the Hall of Chaste Joys, in Beijing on an April afternoon in 1899. The street had many such brothels. The manager of the brothels presents two 'beautiful boys. Peony and Chrystanthemum, about 18 or 19, well dressed and perfumed.' They showed the foreign visitor all their attributes.
Backhouse was to spend much of his time in these male brothels. He found a culture far more accepting of homosexuality, across all classes of society, than the one he had left behind in England. In May 1895, author Oscar Wilde, the most famous homosexual in the country, had been sentenced to two years hard labour for 'gross indecency'.
The population of Beijing in the late Qing era was nearly 70 per cent male, many of them men who had passed the imperial civil service exam and came in search of work but could not afford to bring their families. Unlike in the west, there was no religious disapproval of homosexuality.
As a student at Oxford in the early 1890s, Backhouse had been an active homosexual and avid fan of the theatre. He was able to repeat these passions in Beijing, often with members of the Manchu aristocracy.
He said the Emperor Tongzhi died from syphilis contracted during a visit to a male brothel. According to the official record, he died in January 1875, at the age of 18, of smallpox. Backhouse's version corresponds with what many Beijing people say; the mention of a sexually transmitted disease as cause of death was taboo at that time.
Bao said that readers had to get over the psychological barrier of graphic descriptions of sex before they could appreciate the book's historical value.

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire